Report: Backlog of Arizona Department of Child Safety abuse cases leads to deaths
PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Child Safety has failed to resolve nearly 12,000 cases of alleged abuse or neglect that have been open for at least 60 days without an investigation or services being provided to a potential victim, according to a Cronkite News review of the state’s most recent numbers. In some cases, children may have died because of it, records show.
Not only does the so-called “backlog” continue to vex the department, but a Child and Family Services review by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in December found that when it came to assessing safety and risk, DCS did not include a “specific time frame for completing face-to-face contact with children who are the subject of a report of child maltreatment.” And in some cases, “investigations were kept open for long periods of time.”
“Barriers to assuring child safety and expediting permanency include a growing number of reports of child maltreatment, a growing number of children in foster care, and a backlog of pending investigations of reports of child maltreatment combined with a reduction in resources (placement, service, and caseworker resources) to manage them,” the report said.
Since January 2015, Cronkite News found nearly 40 children have died or nearly died in which DCS received at least one, sometimes more, previous reports of alleged abuse involving the family, according to DCS’ own documentation.
One of those involved the death of 21-month-old Joylynne Giebel last year, who died after suffering significant injuries, including bruising to the left side of her head, bruises and scrapes to her face and body, internal trauma to her abdomen and three broken ribs. Her mother and stepfather father were charged in connection with her death.
DCS had investigated the family on four previous occasions for allegations of physical abuse and neglect. The most recent, in December 2014, alleged that her mother Aminda Giebel and stepfather Andrew Isaacs abused and sold drugs in the home and had “been known to give Joylynne Percocet in order to tranquilize her.”
At the time of the last complaint, DCS workers left a card at their home to contact DCS. No further contact was made before her death nearly six months later, according to the department’s fatality report.
The HHS review also found that “the state’s process is not clear for assessing risk and determining when in-home services should be provided or when safety concerns require removal.”
Late last year, three-year-old Tianna Capps died of “blunt force trauma to the head,” according to the Pinal County medical examiner. When she arrived at the hospital, she had two black eyes, bruises on her abdomen and was dehydrated.
DCS received several prior reports involving three women who allegedly abused and neglected Capps. Among them were her mother Tina Morse and caregivers Shawn Main and Maria Tiglao, two other women living in the home at the time of Capps’ death.
In 2003, the department received six reports alleging physical abuse and neglect to a child in the care of Shawn Main. The Pima County Sheriff’s Office found the allegations were unsubstantiated. In 2009, a report alleged neglect to three children in the care of both Shawn Main and Maria Tiglao. Specifically, “the report alleged concerns regarding the condition of the home and allegations that food and water were being restricted.”
The allegations were unsubstantiated. In 2013, a report alleged neglect to Capps’ siblings by their father. The investigations found the children were safe in the care of their mother, Tina Morse. Another complaint came in 2014. Again, the allegations were deemed unsubstantiated.
The final report of abuse is dated Nov.19, 2015 – the three-year-old was dead.
Morse, Main and Tiglao all were arrested and charged with child abuse. Main is accused of first-degree murder.
HHS’ child family services assessment of DCS also noted, in particular that “concerns identified during the review include resource constraints and high caseworker caseloads.” It also found Arizona failed to meet a national standard of finding permanent placement within 12 months for children entering foster care.
HHS assesses every state on its child welfare performance. None of the states so far were found to be in “substantial conformity” on at least some of the categories that examine risks.
“A better measure, frankly, of where we are in terms of productivity of the agency is the number of reports that we are closing versus the ones that come in,” said Doug Nick, a spokesman for the DCS.
“Every office in the state now is told to please complete 20 percent more of the reports that are coming in to chip away at that backlog and that’s what they’ve been doing. So it’s just a matter, really of a lot of hard work by our field staff and our supervisors out there in the offices and dedication and focus,” he added.
DCS reports show that from March 2015 to February 2016, the number of open reports has decreased by roughly 20 percent.
But Charles Flanagan, the former director of DCS, told Cronkite News in one of his first interviews since being fired in February 2015, that he isn’t confident in their reported strides.
“It’s far worse than anything that was done by the Child Protective Services Division (now DCS) under the pressures that they were facing for inadequate resources, not enough staff, not enough money and more incoming cases,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan served as the director of DCS for eight months and said he was tasked by the legislature to eliminate more than 13,000 backlog cases that had not been addressed in 60 days or more.
“We completed, in that eight months, 6,500 investigations and cases. That means by, and I promise this, by July 1 a year ago, we would have resolved all of the backlog cases. And now, they are swimming in backlog cases and hiding other ones,” he said.
The Division of Child Safety and Family Services was established two years ago after then-Gov. Jan Brewer dissolved CPS. She placed Flanagan as the director. Gov. Doug Ducey fired him eight months later.
“I’ve remained quiet up to this point because frankly I believe that it’s not my place to question that decision. Well, it’s my place now because children are being harmed. Every child that’s being removed from a home is suffering trauma,” Flanagan said.
In January, Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Phoenix, introduced SB 1142, which would require the department to hire private contractors to address the backlog.
“What my legislation does is try to help the Department of Child Safety and that is to take off their plates these backlog cases because they don’t have enough caseworkers in order to handle the cases that are coming in, let alone old cases.”
The bill passed through the Arizona State Senate with unanimous support, but was never assigned to a committee in the House. The measure’s language now is attached to a different bill in the House with the hope it will pass.
“I am a very tenacious person, and I will continue fighting for something I believe in,” she said. “I just want to make sure people realize it’s such an important issue, we need to find out if the children associated with these thousands of cases are safe or not and the faster we can do it, the better.”
One DCS caseworker, who asked not to be identified, blamed an understaffed agency.
“All the old reports that we’re expected to close are put at a higher priority than new cases coming in and I feel like the new cases coming in, we’re not really spending the time that we need to be spending with these kids to assess their safety, because all they care about is closing reports and child safety is not a priority anymore,” the caseworker said.
Each employee experiences what’s called a “down week” roughly every four months to close more reports, they said.
“They’re expected to close 25 cases. They’re not allowed to answer emails, answer phone calls, go on cases, basically leave their desk,” the employee said.
“We’re stepping up our game at the expense of our kids.”
February marked the end of McKay’s first year as DCS director. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Within the past four years, the department has had three different directors: Clarence Carter, Flanagan and McKay.
Turnover also is prevalent among DCS employees. From July 2015 to December 2015, DCS experienced a 36 percent turnover rate among caseworkers, according to the department’s Semi-Annual Financial and Program Accountability Report.
For the same time period, the department has been understaffed by a monthly average of nearly 460 people, according to Cronkite News analysis of numbers in the same accountability report.
“We can turn this situation around, but it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder now than it was when I took over initially because the problem has gotten so bad and so big,” Flanagan said.