Child Protective Services

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Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts talks about instances when Arizona’s Child Protective Services fails to protect children in its care from further abuse. She discusses her struggle to gain access to records in cases of a fatality and near fatality that, if made public, can help hold the agency accountable by giving the public a better understanding of what went wrong.

Ted Simons: A 4-month-old Chandler baby was taken to the hospital earlier this month. The baby was severely injured and burned by a cigarette. But what makes the story even more disturbing is that the baby was under the watch of the state's Child Protective Services. It's the kind of failure that Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts has been reporting on for years. She's going after public records that might help explain what went wrong in this latest case. And she joins us now to talk about CPS and her efforts to hold the agency accountable. It's good to see you again. The last time we had you on this show, we talked about not this case, obviously, but this very same thing. What is wrong, what -- two-part question -- what's wrong with CPS, or are they doing the best they can under this current situation?

Laurie Roberts: That's the million dollar question. What is wrong with CPS in the same thing that's been wrong with them for years and years and years. I met with the director of CPS, Clarence Carter, not too long ago, and he described this culture of bunker mentality, where when there's a problem, you just bury it, you don't talk about it, you don't deal with it. When you do that you don't really fix what ails the system. Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that they are under a tremendous budget strain. But I tend to begin to get the feeling that they're going to say, "That's why all of these things are happening." And yet when you see these children's bodies wash up on the shore and we get the chance to see what really happened by getting those records, I'm often not seeing cases where it looks to be so much about money as it looks to be about poor decision making.

Ted Simons: The bunker mentality, is it coming to be coming from mid level, high level, caseworkers?

Laurie Roberts: I don't believe it's coming from caseworkers. I believe that the culture in a place is set by those people who have been there a long time, and that would lead me to conclude that it's probably middle management. Which sort of just waits out director after director, each one of whom vows to change the culture of the place.

Ted Simons: there are 11,000 some-odd kids in the system right now, that the state is looking over, can the agency adequately look after these kids as it is currently configured, with the people currently in position?

Laurie Roberts: Hard to say, because we can't see into the agency. Despite the talk of transparency, there is still a trash bag across the wall of the place, so to speak. I would have to question why there were so many kids in there. I hear from grandparent after grandparent who has custody of their children, or their grandchildren because their own children are addicted to meth, which is a huge part of the equation in this whole thing. And time after time after time, those kids are taken away from them when mommy gets clean for 10 or 15 minutes and they're back in the home, and I wonder if you just don't at some point cut some of those things off, allow the grandparents to take off with the children and get them out of the whole system. Are we looking at, in other words, the right cases, or are we looking at the cases that are wrong and thus missing?

Ted Simons: That sounds systemic.

Laurie Roberts: It could be. We can't see. Again, the trash bag is over the wall.

Ted Simons: The idea of budget cuts hitting the agency itself, hitting DPS, the idea of budget cuts to other services making for more cases because there are kids and parents in situations that become more difficult because of fewer services-- overall budget cuts, the impact, is that -- are we starting to see the results of some of these cuts with some of these kids?

Laurie Roberts: I don't know that we're starting to see them. I think we've seen them all along. Again, the stories of these children dying are no different than the stories that we were telling in the flush times. Did that play a role in little Jacob the 6-year-old who was killed and we don't know because we haven't seen the records to see what happened in that case. But certainly they've got some budget issues, and shame on the legislature for not giving them what they need. This particular director has an opportunity I think should he have the guts to do it, to both speak truth to power above, and try to get the people below him to change the culture and really make some real changes in that place.

Ted Simons: We've had Mr. Carter on the program, when he first started. So he wasn't quite up to speed on some of the things as I'm sure he is now. You've talked to him as well. Does he seem like he gets it?

Laurie Roberts: He gets it that there's a problem, and he is probably I would guess not going to allow anybody to say, all of this is happening because of the budget cuts and if we just had enough money everything would be wonderful and children and parents would be reunited and wouldn't it be a wonderful world. I think he gets that. What I don't know about him yet is, will he be willing to tell his boss, the governor, that we've gone too far in cuts to this agency and it's time to restore some of this money and give them what they need. But if Mr. Carter were asking my advice, which he hasn't done, nobody asks my advice, I would tell him before you go and look for that money, do a good audit of that agency to find out how you're spending the money that you have. There's no doubt that they've been cut and that they've been hurt. But I hear from some people in the agency that question whether the money is well spent now, as it is spent and whether there's waste in there still.

Ted Simons: Wasn't -- aren't there supposed to be standards as to how many cases certain caseworkers should have? And those standards have been blown by a long time ago.

Laurie Roberts: They standards have never been met, ever.

Ted Simons: It does seem systemic. You've got too few people handling too many cases, you've got poor decisions running rampant over there.

Laurie Roberts: I do think it is. I do think that it is a systemic problem that they've got. It is because of the budget? Partially. But I don't -- I think we would be doing the kids of this community a disservice to just say, "Oh, if they just had more money everything would be fine." Because every time one of these bodies rolls up to shore and you pull these records, you find just some breathtakingly astonishing, bad decisions that have been made and nobody has caught it. And I can give you some examples.

Ted Simons: Well, I -- we don't have time for the examples, though we've read about your examples and it's difficult reading. It's probably difficult for to you report on as well. That being said, it's also difficult to get information out of this agency. What is going on there? Why is this happening? Why is it so -- a fight just to get the basic information?

Laurie Roberts: Because you can't get into a bunker. This is the problem. They control the information, it appears, and I say "they", I don't know who they is over there, but I'll give you an example. I'm trying to get the records on this little baby, 4 months old, who showed up at the hospital near death, 14 broken bones, and her arm used as an ashtray. And she is in the hands of a CPS safety monitor. The question is a simple one -- how did this child wind up to be with this safety monitor, and what steps did CPS take to check the background of both her and her live-in boyfriend to make sure they were appropriate? Is that an unreasonable question? All I get from them is, "We can't even acknowledge that this child was part of us." But then I quote them the law. It doesn't matter. They say, you can't prove it's a near fatality. The police report quotes the doctors as saying the child was brought in a near death incident involving non-accidental trauma. I don't know -- so I say, what does it take for you to understand this is a near fatality and thus the information should be available? We would have to have a doctor sign a medical form. It's bureaucracy. Answer the question.

Ted Simons: We're running out of time here, and I'm so sorry about that, because I have so more questions. With this particular case, didn't we have a special session in the legislature, haven't we had a -- laws pass and amendments passed to laws--to address this transparency problem?

Laurie Roberts: They're ignoring it. We have sent a demand letter to them this week saying follow the law. Give us the records. Even former House Speaker Kirk Adams contacted me today after reading a blog I had written about the fact that we were having difficulty with this, and he was one of the two sponsors, along with Jonathon Peyton, to open up those records and make it more transparent in the hope that when you can see things, things change. People are held accountable, systems are held accountable and things change. And he said to me it's right back to where it was. This is very disappointing. They're not following the law.

Ted Simons: All right. Well, thank you very much, great job reporting, thanks for keeping us informed on this, because it's just devastating to read about this. You just can't make heads or tails on this.

Laurie Roberts: Well they're never going to save them all. The question that I would like them to answer is, "Have you done your damnedest to save the ones you can, and have you done your jobs?"

Ted Simons: Alright Laurie good to have you thank you for joining us.

Laurie Roberts:Arizona Republic;

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