Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Some child-abuse reports won't be probed immediately

The Arizona Department of Child Safety plans to stop assigning lower-priority cases, bringing echoes of a recent scandal.

The state's child-welfare agency, at the direction of its new chief, has stopped assigning lower-priority cases of child abuse and neglect for investigation.

The policy shift echoes a practice that threw the system into turmoil nearly 1 1/2 years ago.

The discovery of the practice by investigator Greg McKay prompted sweeping changes to the child-welfare system and catapulted McKay into the Department of Child Services' top job.

Lawmakers, state officials and law enforcement reacted with shock to McKay's findings in November 2013. Many, including McKay, noted state law requires 100 percent of such reports to be investigated.

But in an April 1 memo, McKay said a heavy workload makes it necessary to set aside some cases.

"My first priority is to stop assigning cases which we all agree cannot be served due to overwhelming demands," McKay wrote. "... This insurmountable volume and accompanying liability of unassigned reports should be owned by the Department, not the already decimated field force."

His office clarified that the cases will be assigned and investigated eventually, but the delay is needed to relieve pressure on already overburdened caseworkers.

Instead, supervisors — and, more broadly, the agency — will monitor the unassigned cases, spokesman Doug Nick said.

Nick said assignment of lower-priority cases will happen when supervisors deem it best. In the meantime, the supervisors will monitor these cases, but how that works is unclear.

Until the April 1 memo, the department's stated policy required a response on lower-priority cases within three days in some instances and seven days for others. It is unclear whether that policy is still in place, and there are no details on how unassigned cases will be monitored or accounted for.

"It's incumbent on the department to take on this role," Nick said. "We don't want to just foist this off on the caseworker."

The new policy appears similar to the practice McKay criticized in November 2013, when he blew the whistle on a Child Protective Services practice of designating low-priority cases "not investigated" to cope with a heavy workload.

"This is clearly an attempt by CPS to lessen the already overburdened investigative arm of the agency," McKay wrote to then-Gov. Jan Brewer in November 2013. "It accomplishes two goals; reduce investigator caseload and reduce the number of unassigned reports. This medicine is truly worse than the disease."

His discovery, as head of a unit that investigated criminal cases, prompted Brewer to call for an overhaul of the state's child-welfare operation, creating the Department of Child Services and making it a Cabinet-level state agency.

McKay was not available Thursday to discuss his decision. But later in the memo, he rebuffs suggestions that the new approach is similar to the maligned "not investigate" process.

"In the end, we must physically assess all children reported to the department and we will accomplish this based on the vulnerability of the children and on time," he wrote.

State law requires all reports of abuse and neglect get a "prompt and thorough investigation."

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who was closely involved in the creation of DCS, said he believes McKay wants to allow complaints involving alleged criminal conduct to be handed over to the agency's Office of Child Welfare Investigations. Their review could clear a case, making it unnecessary to assign it to a caseworker, Montgomery said.

He bases his interpretation on his conversations with McKay, as well as those with former agency director Charles Flanagan, during last year's work on establishing the new department.

McKay's approach is a logical triage in a system that is flooded with abuse and neglect reports of varying severity, Nick said. The agency received 1,045 reports a week to its child-abuse hotline, according to the most recent statistics available. They cover the six-month period ending Sept. 1, 2014.

Nick said the previous director, Flanagan, had a policy of ensuring every report was assigned by 3 p.m. on Fridays, a move that Nick said stressed out caseworkers by giving them "an impossible workload."

But Flanagan, whom Gov. Doug Ducey fired in February and replaced with McKay, said he ended the practice of leaving cases unassigned last year "because it is NI (not investigated) by another name."

The only difference, Flanagan said, is that the new practice is being done in the open, and not hidden.

Assigning all cases brings greater transparency to the admittedly heavy workload the agency faces, Flanagan said.

"It allows them to be and stay in the mix to be investigated directly, rather than hiding in the unassigned pile unaddressed," he wrote in an e-mail in response to a query from The Arizona Republic.

Flanagan also cautioned that low-priority cases that linger without an investigation can blow up into more serious problems, something he saw as he directed a complete review last year of all 6,600 "not investigated" files. In several dozen cases, children had to be removed from their homes due to dangerous situations that might have been averted if caseworkers had seen the children when earlier reports came in.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said she would need a better understanding of the triage process McKay is following before commenting in detail. But she questioned how cases could be tracked if they weren't assigned, and she reiterated concerns that setting aside lower-priority cases could allow small problems to fester into a crisis.

"Knowing as we know, and as Greg McKay has pointed out, cases that are not tended to immediately tend to become higher priority," she said.

Brophy McGee co-chairs a legislative committee assigned to oversee the agency's operations. A bill to extend that committee through 2016 is now on Ducey's desk awaiting action.

Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said the plan "sounds like NI to me."

"I don't think it's acceptable," said McCune Davis, who also sits on the oversight committee. "But I'm waiting for Greg McKay to do what he said he'd do in the oversight committee: produce a plan that will keep kids safe."

For its part, Ducey's office expressed "complete confidence" in McKay's direction.

"Given his reputation for blowing the whistle on problems within the agency over the years, no one has a better understanding than Greg McKay of what it takes to ensure cases don't slip through the cracks," Ducey's office wrote in a statement after The Republic sought comment on the move.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8963.

 

http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2015/04/10/child-welfare-agency-falling-behind-stop-assigning-cases/25562909/