PHOENIX – The revelation that about 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse reported to an Arizona hotline were never investigated has cast a disturbing spotlight on a state department in disarray as officials call for investigations and accountability.
Over the past four years, a team at Arizona's Child Protective Services agency improperly designated the cases "N.I." — meaning "Not Investigated" — to help manage their heavy workload and focus on the most severe cases, said Clarence Carter, chief of the state's child welfare system.
Under state law, all reports generated via the statewide hotline must be investigated, Carter said Thursday. He noted plans would be revealed Monday on how the state will catch up on the overlooked backlog.
At least 125 cases already have been identified in which children later were alleged to have been abused.
"I don't know of any fatalities," Gregory McKay, the agency's chief of child welfare investigations, said of the botched cases.
No one has been disciplined, but Arizona's Department of Public Safety will investigate.
"There must be accountability in this matter, and I will insist on further reforms to make sure that it cannot happen again," Gov. Jan Brewer said.
The practice of misclassifying the cases and essentially closing them started in 2009, and rapidly escalated in the past 20 months as caseloads increased, Carter said.
"The idea that there are 6,000 cases where we don't know whether or not children are safe, that's cause for grave alarm," said Carter, who as director of Arizona's Department of Economic Security oversees CPS and other social welfare agencies.
CPS has been one of the governor's major priorities and has suffered from understaffing and major increases in abuse reports and workloads in recent years. Brewer got approval from the Legislature in January for emergency funding for 50 new caseworkers and regular funding for 150 more in the budget year that began July 1.
The governor called the mishandling of the cases "absolutely unacceptable."
The head of an Arizona child advocacy organization said the problem is one of many at the agency.
"This reconfirms what we've already known about the system, which is that it is overwhelmed and can't function appropriately," said Dana Naimark the Children's Action Alliance. "It needs revamping and needs more resources."
Arizona has struggled in recent years with an increase in child abuse reports, a growing number of children in foster care, and turnover of child welfare workers. It also has been criticized by families who lost children, including relatives of a 5-year-old girl who police in a Phoenix suburb said was killed by her mother despite previous abuse reports.
In another case, a woman and her husband were charged with abuse in the July death of their severely malnourished 15-month-old daughter. CPS originally investigated the mother at the time of the child's 2012 birth after receiving a report of neglect.
She told hospital officials her six other children were delivered at home by their father and had never received medical care because of their religious beliefs, according to CPS records.
"There was concern that the baby would not get the follow-up care needed," the agency's records stated. However, a CPS investigation was completed, "and the children were determined to be safe," according to the records.
It's unclear if the agency checked up on the newborn. The Associated Press submitted a public records request in July for the investigative file, but the agency has yet to provide it.
The parents have since pleaded not guilty, and their other children are in temporary foster care.
The hotline problems were exposed after two police agencies inquired about the status of two abuse cases. Both cases had been marked N.I., McKay said. Further investigation found the practice was widespread.
The problems were blamed on a special unit that reviewed incoming hotline reports and decided, like a triage team, which ones were most serious.
Normally, incoming reports from police, family, doctors or neighbors would be sent to field offices for investigation, McKay said. But the specialized unit was reviewing them first and wrongly classifying some.
The average number of hotline reports generated each month is 3,649, according to the CPS' most recent semiannual report. Since January, one in 12 essentially was being closed without investigation.
The 1,000 caseworkers assigned to child welfare investigations already have caseloads that are 77 percent above the standard, according to the agency. Carter is asking for an additional 350 workers in the coming budget.
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.