Neglected Arizona child abuse cases investigated

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- A team created to clear more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports that went uninvestigated in recent years is on track to get all of them assigned to Arizona child welfare investigators by the end of the month, Juvenile Corrections Director Charles Flanagan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Flanagan, appointed to lead the "CARE team" created by Gov. Jan Brewer to address the neglected cases, said his staff and Child Protective Services workers have now launched investigations into virtually all the cases that were ignored in the past two years.

"We wanted the cases that were most recent to be assigned first because the circumstances that led to that call were more immediate than those that had occurred previously, so the risk to children potentially was much greater. So we've worked our way through pretty much all of the 2013 and 2012 cases," he said.

The cases phoned into a child abuse hotline but never investigated were revealed in November. Most came in the past two years, but the illegal practice at the state's Child Protective Services agency started in 2009.

Flanagan told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that 5,128 of the cases are now assigned to child welfare workers and nearly 2,400 children identified from the reports have been seen. More than 2,000 of the cases have had initial responses by investigators.

"That means the staff members have actually gone out to locate the family, the residence, have gathered their information and are moving forward on the case," he said.

The progress in clearing the uninvestigated cases drew praise from Brewer's spokesman, Andrew Wilder, and from a key lawmaker who is preparing legislation that would pull CPS from its parent agency, the Department of Economic Security, and make it a stand-alone agency.

"I'm so excited with getting these cases handled," said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix. "But the investigations themselves continue to place a burden on an already overburdened workforce."

Brophy McGee is preparing three bills for introduction in the legislative session that begins next week. In addition to pulling CPS out of its parent agency, she's planning a proposal to increase transparency at the secretive agency. And she wants to put a law enforcement team in charge of the hotline or at least have them review incoming reports to ensure that potential crimes are immediately recognized.

"There's just no way to keep track of CPS as part of that huge agency. It needs to be on its own, and it needs the attention and transparency that is so lacking where it is in DES," Brophy McGee said. She said she hasn't talked with Brewer about the proposal.

More than 175 CPS workers are assigned at least part time to the team led by Flanagan. He said they are mainly supervisors without normal caseloads who volunteered to take on the task along with their regular duties.

"They care greatly, and they work very, very hard to make sure these children are safe," Flanagan said.

Five senior CPS workers are on leave as an investigation by the Department of Public Safety into who authorized the action is conducted. The agency has declined to name them.

The second part of Flanagan's job is to come up with recommendations that will prevent a recurrence of the issue at CPS and put in place greater controls. He promised those will be delivered to Brewer by the end of January.

"We do know that there are things that have to happen - we are going to have to make sure that there is accountability, that the policy in the statute is followed, and that policies are not created by memo or by word of mouth, that the law and the policy must be clear and must be followed," he said. "We do know that we have to create better partnerships with folks in the community. We have heard from them about the terrible turnover, attrition of staff in CPS, and the problems that lead to that."

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