After a top Arizona official said last week more than 6,000 recent child abuse reports in the state had been ignored, a plan to investigate the cases has raised questions about whether the overburdened child welfare system has the ability to get the job done.
Arizona's Child Protective Services came under fire last week when Clarence Carter, director of the state's Department of Economic Security, which oversees child welfare, revealed that 6,110 reports of child abuse between 2009 and 2013 had not been investigated. State law requires that each call to the child abuse hot line is investigated.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," she said. "I do not want to see the lights off at CPS until this is done."
On Monday night, Carter submitted a plan to the state Legislature's Child Protective Services oversight committee, promising that the agency would review all of the forgotten cases by Dec. 2, and begin investigations by Jan. 31.
Some lawmakers have questioned how so many cases were neglected and whether an already overwhelmed agency can tackle years of work in just a few months. State Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, a Democrat who sits on the oversight committee, called the plan "skeletal."
"I'm not sure who's taking the lead on this and how they're going to get these cases appropriately investigated without pushing other cases further into the backlog," she told the Los Angeles Times.
So far, the department has reviewed all of the cases from 2013. Of those 2,919 cases, 125 involved follow-up reports of repeated child abuse.
An additional 3,191 cases from 2009 through 2012 still must be reviewed before Dec. 2.
The cases became part of a neglected backlog when the files were classified as "Not Investigated," a bookkeeping practice that was started in 2009 by a team that, ironically, was brought in to help reduce and reorganize the agency's workload, McCune Davis said.
Greg McKay, chief of the office of Child Welfare Investigations, uncovered the practice after an inquiry from police following up on a case.
"It was a high-level team of supervisors whose job was to address the problems within the agency," McCune Davis said.
"That's why people are so concerned -- this wasn't an incidental occurrence," she said. "This was something that was happening throughout the agency, and outside their own rules."
State police are looking into how the cases were ignored.
A five-person team made up of a captain, a sergeant and three detectives will review the processes Child Protective Services used that led to the cases being classified as "Not Investigated," Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves told T¿he Times.
Kathy McLaughlin, executive director of the Arizona Child and Family Advocacy Network, said that the revelations had caused "a real compromise of trust in the community."
"It takes courage to report child abuse," she said, explaining that that effort is wasted if the cases are not investigated.
"In Arizona we have a lot of well-trained professionals," she said, "but none of them respond unless the call is made and then forwarded to the first responders."
The Arizona situation reflects a national problem "of overworked, underfunded agencies" operating within a child welfare system that is "essentially broken," said Daphne Young of ChildHelp, an organization based in Phoenix that provides treatment for abused children.
"Sometimes it takes, unfortunately, a crisis to make people wake up to a situation that's been happening for a long time," she said.