PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer could be politically damaged by revelations that her administration ignored thousands of child abuse and neglect reports that prompted calls for her to replace her hand-picked leader of the state’s social services agency.
While Brewer has made reforming Child Protective Services one of her top priorities in the past several years, critics of the Republican governor say the failures show her administration continues to shortchange kids.
Brewer is so far rejecting calls to replace the agency’s leader, and supporters say the governor ensured the botched cases were made public and has called for accountability.
Clarence Carter, director of the Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS, revealed last week that more than 6,000 reports generated by the state’s child abuse hotline hadn’t been investigated since 2009, most in the past 20 months. The CPS plan to clear those reports was released early this week and has been widely panned as inadequate and short on specifics.
Carter promises every case meriting a full investigation will be handled by the end of January. He’s assigned more than 200 CPS supervisors and program managers to the job, employees who don’t currently handle a caseload.
Carter has declined to comment through a spokeswoman since Monday.
Last January, Brewer personally took credit in her State of the State address for “overhauling” the hotline system so urgent calls received priority. But that overhaul apparently included simply closing thousands of abuse reports.
Now, criticism is coming from both Democrats and members of Brewer’s own party, who appeared blindsided by the news.
“I have to ask the question, what else might not be working?” said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s CPS oversight committee. “Is it a systemic problem?”
Republican Sen. Nancy Barto, the committee’s other co-chair, said the problem was system-wide. And while neither GOP lawmaker called for Carter’s ouster, both were harsh in their assessment.
“The public must know that this neglect of duty will never happen again and that the people responsible for this disturbing practice are held accountable,” Barto said in a statement. “In addition, a long-term reform of the agency is warranted to restore public confidence.”
The controversy is certain to become a major source of debate when the full Legislature returns in January, and the attention focused on the social service agency could deflect from Brewer’s other priorities going into the final year of her last term.
Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder brushed off the calls for Carter to resign.
“The calls for Carter’s resignation have come from largely predictable people,” he told The Associated Press Wednesday. “She’s not entertaining calls like that right now, because her first concern is to ensure that every child whose case went uninvestigated is safe. That’s the immediate task at hand.”
The leader of minority Democrats in the state House of Representatives blasted Carter, saying Brewer needs to take responsibility for the problem.
“The bottom line is Carter needs to go. He needs to go yesterday; he’s failed in every aspect of this job,” Rep. Chad Campbell said. “Either the governor or Carter — one of them needs to go. This is another state agency that’s failing under her.
“The other agencies are bad, but now we’re talking about protecting children,” Campbell said. “Enough is enough.”
The head of a leading Arizona child advocacy group sent an open letter to Brewer demanding that Carter be removed.
“Since this practice of leaving reports uninvestigated has continued over several years from different units within the Department of Economic Security, it’s clear it was not one or two rogue employees, but a systemic policy,” wrote Dana Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance. “Director Clarence Carter is responsible for this lapse and we urge you to ask for his resignation.”
Brewer has made reforming CPS a priority, establishing a task force in 2011 to recommend changes, and making it a key part of this January’s State of the State address.
She took credit for overhauling the hotline system “so the most urgent calls are directed for faster response,” all the while apparently not knowing that the team responsible was labeling thousands of cases unworthy of investigation.
Wilder said Brewer ensured the failures were publicized and has called for accountability once an outside review by state police is completed. He also said Brewer should be credited with creating the special investigation team within CPS that discovered the cases were being neglected.
“If it wasn’t for the reforms that Jan Brewer fought for successfully, it is a question when and if these cases would have been exposed,” Wilder said.