PHOENIX - The head of the new investigations unit of Arizona's Child Protective Services wants to fill in cracks that he says can be deadly for children and haunting for those trying -- but failing -- to protect them.
Cracks such as disconnects between what Child Protective Services workers on one hand and police officers on the other know and need; gaps between what Arizona authorities know about allegations concerning a troubled family and the family's history in another state; and uneven training for police officers investigating reports of abuse and neglect.
"That's a heavy, awful burden for a human being to carry that went into this line of work to help and keep safe a child, to find out that their inactions later caused the death of a child," said Greg McKay, chief of the new Child Welfare Investigations Office.
The unit's creation was the chief recommendation of a task force appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer in response to a series of publicized serious child-abuse cases, including some in which the families had prior CPS contacts. Legislators last spring approved creation of the unit, effective Dec. 31, with annual funding of nearly $2.4 million.
The unit will have 30 workers when fully staffed, including McKay, four managers and 25 investigators.
That's enough personnel to set up shop in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, but the unit likely would have to expand beyond 30 people to cover other counties, he said.
McKay said 11 people already have been hired or their hirings are being processed. The remainder will be chosen in January from 55 applicants, mostly current or former law enforcement officers but also some CPS workers.
The investigators must have experience and expertise in child-welfare investigations, and that fits McKay's own background.
The veteran of nearly 20 years of police work, the 42-year-old is a Phoenix Police Department detective on loan to the state. A former patrol officer and street gang detective, McKay more recently worked homicide and then child crimes.
"My task was prove the case, prosecute somebody if they're proven to have committed the crime and then provide everything to CPS and hope for the best," McKay said during a recent interview.
As a result of his work, he and his wife took in a youngster as a foster child. He said that experience and other work provided insights on what happens to kids from troubled families.
"I saw the family perspective. I saw when I took away the father figures from homes for serious crimes, the devastation it left behind, what was going to maybe move in behind that person into the home," he said. "It also pained me that this (arrest) isn't the end."
And now McKay has a beginning, with plenty to do to set up the new unit.
But he's already settled on priorities and goals.
Police and CPS workers are supposed to run coordinated investigations, but McKay said that doesn't always happen, due to circumstances such as burdens of proof that can affect gathering of evidence.
The injection of unit members' investigative expertise into CPS should help "dual insights" between CPS caseworkers and law enforcement, McKay said.
"CPS personnel might be fresh out of school with social-worker degrees and end up in the so-called underbelly of society and looking at egregious behaviors and could use some help in assessing those things," McKay said. "In the end, if somebody committed a crime, we want to hold that person criminally accountable and remove them from the scenario ... We can help them do that."
To be most effective, investigators will be posted in child advocacy centers that already jointly house CPS personnel, police and other specialists.
The unit will have CPS' responsibility for investigating serious cases involving potential crimes, but law enforcement agencies would be lead on actual criminal investigations.
McKay said he wants the office to include a research and analysis unit to find out whether subjects of abuse or neglect reports have similar histories in other states.
That information allows caseworkers, attorneys and judges to make better-informed decisions about the safety of children, McKay said. "That is critical."
He cited the case of a 10-year-old Phoenix girl who suffocated in a plastic box. It was claimed be accidental, but authorities later concluded the death was a homicide, and several adults await trial.
McKay said the family had CPS contacts in two other states before moving to Phoenix.
"Literally they jump from state to state with no one knowing about it," he said. "When the heat gets too hot, they go to another state."
Eventually there needs to be a nationwide database of substantiated reports of child maltreatment, but for now the new Arizona unit will step up efforts to learn whether alleged perpetrators or victims lived and had problems elsewhere, he said.
McKay said the unit will work with Arizona State University and the state's police-certification agency to develop training material for child-welfare investigations, particularly for smaller jurisdictions that lack a big city police department's specialized squads.
"Uniform training and knowledge would be huge," he said. "I want to see a child in Greenlee County get the same level of protection that a child here in Phoenix would get."