PHOENIX - Thousands of cases of suspected child abuse that were reported to a statewide hotline have gone uninvestigated over the past four years, putting children across Arizona at risk, state officials disclosed Thursday.
The cases were misclassified as not requiring investigations starting in 2009. The number rapidly escalated in the past 20 months as caseloads increased and changes were made to the hotline team, said Clarence Carter, head of the state's child welfare system.
Five thousand of the 6,000 cases that were not investigated happened in that time, and all will be reviewed, Carter said. At least 125 cases already have been identified where children subsequently became the subject of another child abuse investigation.
"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," Carter said.
Arizona's Child Protective Services department has been one of Gov. Jan Brewer's major priorities and has suffered from understaffing and major increases in abuse reports and workloads in recent years. She 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.
Brewer was briefed about the situation last week. After Carter revealed the problem to a handful of reporters Thursday, the governor issued a statement calling the shortcomings "absolutely unacceptable."
"The most urgent priority is to ensure that each one of the children involved in these cases is safe," Brewer said. "Every case must be investigated -- no exceptions, no excuses. It is not only the right thing, but it is the law."
Arizona's Department of Public Safety also is being asked to investigate how the lapsed occurred, Carter and Brewer said.
"There must be accountability in this matter, and I will insist on further reforms to make sure that it cannot happen again," Brewer said.
The head of an Arizona child advocacy organization said the hotline problems were just the latest issue at the troubled 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, who leads the Children's Action Alliance. "It needs revamping and needs more resources."
Naimark said Child Protective Services has a "whole list of things that haven't been handled," including 10,000 current cases that haven't been addressed within a 60-day time limit.
"This is one piece of the puzzle, but the puzzle was already there, and we would ask (Carter) and the Legislature to be very strategic with how they allocate their resources."
Naimark added the latest problems should've been uncovered during routine reviews that are in place for incoming cases.
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.
The uninvestigated cases were exposed after a police agency contacted child welfare investigators in August and asked about the status of a report, said Gregory McKay, the agency's chief of child welfare investigations. While that case was being reviewed, another report came in, and McKay said a larger analysis quickly found the original hotline reports had been labeled "N.I.," for not investigated. That's not allowed by law, he said.
McKay's staff then launched a review and found that since January, 2,971 cases have been labeled N.I., and at least 1,700 merited investigation. The N.I. labeling practice has been halted.
"I don't know of any fatalities," McKay said of the botched cases. "There have been subsequent reports involving alleged abuse and physical injury after a prior N.I., and those are being investigated currently."
The problems began in a special unit that reviewed incoming hotline reports, Carter said. The units used the N.I. classification as a way to manage caseloads.
The average number of hotline reports generated each month is 3,649, according to the most recent CPS semi-annual report.
The 1,000 caseworkers assigned to child welfare investigations already have caseloads that are 77 percent above the standard, according to CPS. But Carter promised to review the outstanding cases.
"We simply have a duty to get it done," he said.
Carter is asking for another 350 workers in the coming budget. The revelations came hours before a legislative oversight committee was to receive an update on the agency.