Six state employees were fired last month after an investigation into the thousands of ignored Child Protective Services cases, but five of those employees say it wasn't their fault.
The five women held a press conference Wednesday with their attorney, explaining that they were just doing what they were told by superiors.
"Our belief, when we were directed to do this, was that our superiors had researched and looked at whatever information in the statute that would allow us to do that ['not investigated'] process," said Tracy Everitt, who was a program manager with CPS.
The five women were part of what was called a SWAT Team, which was supposed to process all of the allegations phoned in to the CPS hotline, and assign those to case workers. (The sixth person fired, Sharon Sergent, was their boss.)
They admit they marked these cases as "Not Investigated" but say they did so only during a 20-month span. Information released by CPS has shown that the "Not Investigated" process was started before the 20-month window and continued after another team took over processing the cases. The report that started the whole thing, discovered by a Phoenix police detective who's been working with CPS, wasn't assigned by this group of women, either.
Their former employees' attorney, Terry Woods, described the highest-ranking of the five women as "four steps down from the top," and this wasn't a plan of their own.
"There is no legal action at this point in time," Woods said. "We are contemplating the possibility of a lawsuit for wrongful termination."
A couple of the women said they didn't particularly like having to shelve some of these cases by marking them as low-priority, but the agency simply didn't have the resources to investigate every single claim.
An initial review found the reasoning for these uninvestigated cases was that the work just outpaced the ability of workers -- it was just impossible to investigate every single case, let alone catch up on a backlog. And the Department of Public Safety's lengthy report on the matter didn't find any other sinister motive at CPS.
Of course, after a team came in and reviewed the 6,500 cases that were shelved, they decided that a few hundred of those children needed to be removed from their homes immediately, so the "NI" process wasn't without consequence.
But these five women seemed to be confused as to why they were targeted for firing. The whole process wasn't really a secret around CPS, and the DPS report shows a list 14 pages long of employees who designated cases "NI" (although the five women at this press conference applied "NI" labels in much greater numbers).
Even when DPS interviewed Department of Economic Security director Clarence Carter, he seemed to be aware -- to some degree -- of what was going on.
From the report:
Carter was asked about his understanding of NI. Carter said the CPS historically had more cases to review than manpower to do so. Carter said CPS developed a "mechanism to triage cases with a set of criteria, which would allow you to take a lower level intervention for cases you could determine the children were not in harm's way. Carter said CPS was required by statute to investigate all reported cases of child abuse, but it was never his understanding or intention for cases not to be investigated . . .
Carter was asked how he thought cases were getting attended to if CPS had more cases than staff to work them. Carter stated he believed there was a "triage" process, where staff could certify children were not in harm's way through an administrative investigation, not requiring an "on ground investigation."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In addition to the magical "triage," employees were also sending Carter semi-annual reports that included the number of cases "not responded to." The report says Carter insisted he "was unaware cases were not being investigated."
Woods, the attorney, says he's still gathering the facts to see if the women have a valid claim for a wrongful-termination suit.
Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.