Report outlines plan for complete overhaul of Arizona child welfare agency after missteps

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By BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — An independent team named by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to review the state's troubled child welfare agency on Friday called for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the department to focus it purely on child safety.

The team released a 54-page review outlining steps needed to address yearslong problems at Child Protective Services. The most severe issue was revealed in November when more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports were found to have not been investigated.

Brewer abolished Child Protective Services earlier this month and created a new child welfare department that reports directly to her.

The Republican governor's CARE team report recommends retraining social workers, working more with outside providers and overhauling the state's child abuse hotline.

The report also recommends removing civil service protections from child welfare agency workers to allow exceptional performance to be rewarded.

"It's a very insular, closed, friend of friend-type culture and that needs to change," said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican who is on the team. "It needs to be a system of employees who are supported in the job they are expected to do that's clearly outlined for them that they will then be accountable for."

The report revealed big lag times in the abuse hotline system, noting that 26 percent of callers hang up while on hold. It mapped 142 possible points in the current system where an abused or neglected child could fall through the cracks.

"It's breathtaking," Brophy McGee said. "It's very scary."

The report also repeated what's already known about the agency — that caseworkers are overworked, turnover approaches 30 percent, and performance standards are unclear.

Brewer created what she's calling the CARE team in December after it was learned that a group inside the Child Protective Services agency had been closing reports received by its child abuse hotline without sending them to social workers in the field for investigation. The idea was to cull out reports not meriting action to lower the caseload of overwhelmed field workers, but a review found many should've been acted upon, and all by law required a response.

Five senior CPS workers remain on administrative leave as investigations into who authorized the closings continue.

The CARE team has been handling the previously uninvestigated reports and assigned all but three of 6,554 cases to social workers. Those three were referred to authorities on Indian reservations outside state jurisdiction.

Social workers have removed 82 children from their homes since the neglected reports dating to 2009 were discovered. A review also found that before the closed cases were discovered, nearly 1,200 of them had subsequent reports that led to the removal of at least 316 children from their homes.

Brewer named the director of the state's juvenile corrections department to lead the effort and appointed key lawmakers and others to the team.

Earlier this month, she pulled CPS from its parent agency and created a new cabinet-level department by executive order, saying she has "abolished CPS as we know it."

Brewer renamed the agency the Division of Child Safety and Family Services and appointed CARE team leader Charles Flanagan to head it. She's asking the Legislature to formally create the new agency.

She also asked the Legislature for money to immediately begin beefing up agency staffing. On Thursday, lawmakers approved a special $6.8 million appropriation that will allow the agency to begin hiring nearly 200 new workers. That action is needed because caseloads have soared in recent years as abuse reports skyrocketed and high worker turnover left workers handling more than twice the recommended caseload.