Redact Attack

Secrecy at CPS must change before real reform of this broken agency can begin

If you ask Child Protective Services officials to see copies of complaints made against the agency, you will receive pages of reports that look like the documents pictured at right.

No joke. I've got a stack of such documents in front of me.

Now, with such non-information in your ink-blackened hands, imagine it's your job to look into chronic problems the agency might have, your goal being to identify ways CPS could do a better job protecting Arizona's at-risk children.

Not going to happen, is it?

Just for fun, I faxed several of the blackest, least informative documents over to Dan Barr, a Brown and Bain attorney who is the state's top guru on open meetings and public records law.

"Wow!" Dan exclaimed when he called back. "Those documents pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what needs to be reformed at CPS."

Indeed, Barr made a great point. It was clarity through outrageous opacity. Before legislators, the media and others can hope to help make this foundering agency better, they need to know exactly what's wrong. And it's very difficult to know what's wrong with CPS because officials there are notoriously secretive.

It's a public agency operating like the Vatican Bank.

"The Legislature must find a way to make them more open and accountable," Barr says.

That's a direct plea from Barr to legislators sitting in the current CPS-centric special legislative session.

Here's the problem. CPS, for good and obvious reasons, is mandated by state law to protect the identity of the victims of abuse or neglect.

However, CPS officials have long abused the vague language in state law regarding CPS confidentiality to block access to any information regarding how CPS does, or fails to do, business.

For example, New Times editors Amy Silverman and Patti Epler earlier this year sent public records requests to CPS wanting to see citizen complaints against the agency. With that information, they hoped to begin to get a handle on where CPS was dropping the ball in cases that have left so many children injured or dead.

They also asked to see staff personnel files, including disciplinary actions. Who is getting hired as caseworkers at CPS? What are their backgrounds? Are they fresh-faced liberal arts majors or combat-hardened inner-city social workers? How prepared are they for the extremely difficult job at hand? Do any of them have a master's degree in social work, which national experts say makes a big difference? How does CPS deal with caseworkers who violate procedure or make other serious mistakes?

Regarding complaints against the agency, Liz Barker, CPS' communications director, graciously sent copies of six complaints, out of the more than 200 requested, accompanied by a letter explaining about how tough it was to redact those six short letters into utter uselessness.

"As you review the attached six letters, you will understand the amount of time it takes to redact the letters in order to comply with the law," Barker wrote, sounding like a tour docent discussing construction of the Great Wall. "The attached six letters took a staff person eight hours to locate and redact. If you decide that you would like the Department to proceed with your request, please contact me."

If it takes her people that long to redact, just imagine how long it takes them to actually dact.

"It took them eight hours to make this mess?" Barr asked as he looked over Barker's faux-Herculean redactathon. "You could have given a bunch of nursery school kids some crayons and they'd do the same thing in five minutes. This is just silly."

Dact jokes aside, what Barker in fact did was black out even the most benign case information. We're left to wonder if anything in these letters might have brought into question the policies and procedures of CPS. She was protecting her and her boss's asses under the guise of protecting the anonymity of children.

How do I know this? Because I know what sort of information is usually included in these reports and letters. That's because the state's risk management department doesn't play the same silly games as CPS. That agency, which operates under the same state public records law, was completely forthright in turning over complaints against CPS in its own files.

After reading the risk management file, you can see why Barker is so liberal with her permanent marker.

In the death of one infant, both CPS and law enforcement officials appeared to have ample evidence that the mother was a violent drug addict who had made numerous threats to kill her child. The mother had been involved in numerous incidents of domestic violence, shoplifting, prostitution and drug manufacturing, and was even caught by law enforcement officials in bed with a naked minor in possession of a loaded, and stolen, .357 magnum. The child's father pleaded with CPS to get the child to safety. The agency did not. The baby was later found drowned in a bathtub as her mother lay passed out on the floor from a drug overdose.

Another baby was murdered after CPS returned custody of the child to a mother with a proven and ongoing crack addiction. According to the medical examiner, the child died from "multiple blunt force injuries consistent with his head and face being thrust into the vertical bars of his crib."

Another child was kidnapped and murdered by a mother with a similarly long history of reported abuse and drug problems.

Several other reports convincingly argue that children were placed in dangerous environments after they were taken from parents or guardians by CPS. Others complain that CPS and other state agencies withheld critical information about the welfare of the child in question once they were removed from a home.

One complaint comes from foster parents angry that CPS did not inform them that the child they were taking into their home had a history of sexually abusive behavior toward younger children. The foster child proceeded to sexually abuse the foster parents' three young children.

The list goes on.

Legislators are currently looking at two competing bills designed to reform CPS, House Bill 2004 and Senate Bill 1007.

The Senate bill, authored by respected victims' rights attorney Steve Twist and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, is clearly the more comprehensive reform bill. It also clearly addresses CPS' problem with hiding behind vague confidentiality rules.

Besides calling for the Legislature to create a wholly independent child protection agency (CPS is currently a division of the Department of Economic Security), the Senate bill clearly defines the limit of the agency's ability to withhold information.

The bill states that the new child protective services would "be open and accountable to the public for the actions of the department" and will "maintain open public records except that the identity and location of the alleged victim shall be protected."

Interestingly, that language is similar to what the courts have viewed as acceptable disclosure when CPS takes the media on ride-alongs. Barker, who won't release even the tiniest bit of information about a case when it comes to complaints against caseworkers, is more than happy to do so when it comes to furthering her own ends. She says CPS encourages reporters to tag along with beleaguered CPS caseworkers so the agency can convince reporters just how beleaguered the caseworkers really are. In those circumstances, CPS petitions a judge to issue a court order prohibiting the media from disclosing "names, addresses, likenesses or any other information that could reasonably lead to the identification of a person." I don't think the court had Barker's redactomatic pen in mind when it was thinking of information that could reasonably identify a victim or family.

Withholding essentially only the names and addresses of CPS clients is simple, forthright and effective at balancing the protection of children and families against the public's legitimate interest in whether a critical public entity is operating appropriately.

"I'm obviously a strong proponent of protecting victims in these cases," says Twist, who has authored most of Arizona's existing laws regarding victims' rights. "But at the same time, I'm very supportive of a rigorous press and the idea that sunlight is a great disinfectant. In this case, we must make sure that important information is no longer hidden under the guise of protecting children."

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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