PHOENIX - Five senior Arizona child welfare employees who were fired last month for their role in the closure of more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect cases without investigation defended their actions Wednesday, saying they followed orders to create a system that culled out low-priority cases and lowered crushing caseloads.
The five said at a news conference that their superiors ordered them to review reports called in to the state's child abuse and neglect hotline and sidetrack those that weren't serious.
They argued they're being made scapegoats for an agency that struggled with underfunding for years while trying to handle what one called an "epidemic" of child abuse in Arizona.
The five were high-level supervisors in the state's Child Protective Services department. Their attorney, Terry Woods, said he is contemplating a wrongful termination lawsuit.
The five were fired by the new head of state's child welfare agency, Charles Flanagan, after he reviewed a state police report on the November discovery of the "not investigated" cases.
Gov. Jan Brewer named Flanagan to head a new agency to handle child welfare after she pulled CPS from its parent agency in January. Brewer plans to call the Legislature into a special session within weeks to officially create a new child welfare agency.
"We were directed from our superiors to put together a plan to execute reviewing cases for the NI (not investigated) status," said Deborah Harper, who was a deputy director and led the so-called SWAT team assembled by CPS to cull out the reports.
She said the impression given by Flanagan that the team did its work in secret is just flat wrong.
"That's so very far from the truth," Harper said. "Everyone inside the agency knew about the reviews. We sent out weekly reports with the outcome of those reviews. Our superiors knew about the reviews."
The workers also noted they ran the program for only 20 months, until August, but it was in place as early as 2009 and continued until November. They argued they were singled out as responsible while others involved kept their jobs.
Tracey Everitt, a program manager for the team, said the group met on Saturdays to review the reports, then sent out memos to their superiors and field managers about their actions.
"When we sat down to review each and every one of these reports," Everitt said. "The very first time we had to mark a case as not investigated, that's something you put a lot of thought into, and you just hope that you are making the right decision and that this is not a child that we're leaving in an unsafe situation."
Everitt said the five members were chosen because they had a combined 113 years' experience with CPS, and had the skills needed to assess the cases.
The fired workers said the real problem was the chronic underfunding the child welfare programs in Arizona.
"I believe that our system is broken, our system has been broken for a long time," said Michelle Parker, a former program manager. "If you do not have the funding up front to provide services to our families then the whole state has failed our families."
Parker said as a result, most of the reports the team saw were low-priority cases involving neglect.
"These are the families that are reaching out. These are the poor families. These are the families that don't have resources," she said.
The five said Clarence Carter, who headed the state agency formerly over CPS, was aware of cases being closed without investigations, as state law requires. Carter told state police investigators that he knew of a "triage" system where cases were reviewed administratively, but said he never would have allowed cases to go uninvestigated.
Woods said there was no difference between the two. He also called on Brewer to find a place for the four workers not yet eligible for state retirement, calling them dedicated workers who deserved better than being fired because of a political problem.
"I think we're disappointed" in the outcome, said Jana Leineweber, an assistant program manager. "We spent our lives, we devoted our lives, to Arizona CPS, and this is the repayment that we get. We really didn't do anything wrong."