Child Protective Services: Anatomy of a brush-off
AVIVA services in Tucson had to lay off 32 people and stop supervised visits
Notes and commentary by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
In the past several months, two things have become glaringly apparent about Arizona's beleaguered and befuddled Child Protective Services agency.
One: It has some explaining to do.
Two: It ain't gonna do it.
KGUN9 and other news organizations have grown used to evasiveness from CPS when inquiring about such issues as, oh, dead and abused children. The agency is notoriously tight-lipped about such matters. Even though journalists are left to wonder how much of that stonewalling is actually due to the privacy and investigative concerns that such officials typically cite -- or whether it's really about elected and appointed officials trying to avoid public embarrassment and duck any kind of accountability for their actions -- there's not a lot that we in the media can do about it.
Two recent concerns, however, have removed all doubt about what is driving CPS's reclusive behavior.
The first of those issues arose over the summer. 9 On Your Side began investigating reports that, on occasion, CPS caseworkers were having to shelter children in office buildings. Yes, it's true, a local CPS official admitted. Flora Sotomayor (whose openness we salute) told KGUN9 News, "Given the circumstances that we do not have a place to put them, what other choices do we have?"
That resource question got the attention of some state lawmakers, who told 9 On Your Side they were ready to seek legislative help. But then the CPS central office stepped in, and the next thing you know, this wasn't such a problem after all. State CPS spokeswoman Tasya Peterson told us, "It happens but it's not regular." The agency did not seek any help from the legislature, its essential message being, We've got this.
Historically, 9 On Your Side has found that when public officials are less than totally forthcoming, public records may tell the tale. By state law, the public is entitled to see those. So, KGUN9 filed a records request for all public documents related to the sleeping-on-the-floor issue.
Net result: nothing. Not a single relevant internal document or email. This requires the public to believe that at no time did any case worker write any supervisor, nor did any supervisor write any higher supervisors, to raise an alert or express the slightest concern about the spectacle of neglected kids having to sleep on office floors. Nor, supposedly, did any of those caseworkers note, log, record or otherwise document such incidents in any way, shape, form or fashion. We're also left to believe that CPS administrators are unable to get these answers by simply asking caseworkers to raise their hands if one of their kids has had to sleep in a conference room. Whatever the case, CPS succeeded in leaving the public in the dark about how many times this has happened.
The buck on CPS issues stops with Department of Economic Security director Clarence Carter, whose department oversees CPS. So, in July KGUN9 asked for an interview.
Peterson said "no." Her explanation: "Director Carter is confident that the information we have previously provided is comprehensive and sufficient."
Since the "information" provided didn't come close to answering our questions, now you know how CPS defines "comprehensive and sufficient."
Fast forward to December. 9 On Your Side learned that CPS was cutting off vendors whose job it is to arrange for supervised parental visits in troubled families. AVIVA, a local business that specializes in such services, told us it was having to lay off 32 people as a result, and stop all its visitations.
Panicked parents contacted 9 On Your Side. We inquired. Despite the fact that child safety case workers are notoriously overworked (this is a nationwide problem) CPS assured us that it would be able to handle the visitations internally, with existing resources. "Nothing has changed," CPS assured us.
But soon 9 On Your Side learned that at least some parents were getting a far different story. One outraged mom played us back a voice mail message left by her case worker informing her that her visitations were on hold and there was no telling when they might resume - if ever.
In the face of this conflicting fact, CPS stood by its story.
Then, about a week later, Carter let slip during a public appearance in the Phoenix area that the cuts were all due to some mysterious "misunderstanding" and would be restored.
"Misunderstanding?" CPS had a week to think about it. Is that the best explanation it could come up with? Really?
As AVIVA chief Bob Heslinga put it drily, "This 'misunderstanding' cost 32 people their jobs." And that's just with his one local agency in Tucson.
Knowing that KGUN9's Tucson area viewers -- and affected families -- were very interested in this story (some were highly alarmed) CPS could have reached out to KGUN9 with the startling news that it was restoring these services, so that we could relay this urgent new development to you right away. It didn't. When contacted by KGUN9 News, it could have provided a spokesperson to explain itself to you face to face on camera or by phone. It didn't. Peterson did finally confirm the news, by way of a brief written statement. That was it. She was too "busy" for anything else.
The details of what KGUN9 requested, and the responses we got, are interesting and instructive.
KGUN9 filed its first request for an interview -- any interview -- about the "misunderstanding" via an email sent to Peterson on December 18. No response.
On the morning of 19th, 9 On Your Side reporter Craig Smith sent a second email to Peterson. By 3:30 that afternoon, he had not received a response to that email, either. Craig then sent in a detailed public records request - which, among other things, made it crystal clear what issues KGUN9 was interested in exploring. A few minutes later, at 3:45 PM that afternoon, still not having received a reply, he sent a request to interview Carter - making this our third such request since July. Craig offered to schedule the interview at the director's convenience, on that day or a later day.
A few minutes later Craig finally got a response -- in the form of an 8-line emailed statement from Peterson. The statement ignored our questions about when services would be restored and whether parents could count on having visitations resume in time for Christmas. It provided no specifics of any kind. It made no attempt to explain the alleged "misunderstanding." It did not acknowledge the interview request.
Craig followed up with yet another email (if you're counting, #5) in which he repeated the question. Peterson's response? She sent a one-line reply, in which she simply repeated, word for word, the 8th line of her previous response, which had evaded the question the first time. (You can see some of the relevant documents in the "Related documents" section of this story.)
Are you feeling a chill yet?
About an hour and a half later, Peterson formally rejected the interview request, writing, "The Director is not available and we do not have any additional information to provide at this time...."
A follow-up email to Peterson the next day resulted in an automated out-of-office notification, stating that she would be back a couple of days after Christmas.
OK, we get it. It's the holidays. Maybe the explanation that the director was "not available" was an honest one, we thought.
So, we waited out the holidays. Then on January 4, Craig renewed the request. Peterson replied to the email but ignored the interview request. Craig tried again, writing politely, "I'd call your attention to our renewed request for an interview with Director Carter."
Peterson replied, "Director Carter believes the Division of Children, Youth and Families is well-equipped to handle your requests, which is how we have been proceeding."
On a B.S. scale of 1 to 10, where "1" is a perfectly pristine paddock, and "10" is a massive steaming mound that would cause Hercules to blanch*, that reply is about a 20.
You can take Peterson's statement as true, however, if you understand that CPS's idea of "handling" such questions is to duck cameras, and to hide behind brief, written statements that say as little as possible, while shielding top management from anything as pesky and irritating as a reporter with embarrassing questions that he or she would like to present on behalf of a concerned public.
Oh, and remember CPS' promise that "nothing would change" after the service cuts it announced last month? Did it keep that promise? Take a good guess. CPS told 9 On Your Side on Monday that it doesn't keep such information on hand, so it can't tell you whether it did its job and kept its commitments or not.
There's nothing like transparency in government. And CPS' adroit "handling" of bothersome questions is nothing like it.
KGUN9 is by no means the only news organization to get the ol' bureaucratic runaround, heave-ho, and stiff-arm from CPS. The Arizona Daily Star's Josh Brodesky wrote eloquently about this treatment as recently as September. If you didn't see his column, check it out here.
While Carter is hiding behind public information officers, you might reasonably wonder whether there are any important CPS related topics that do interest him. He has a blog. Check it out. In the December edition, you'll see him chirping on for three single-spaced pages about such matters as the kindness and holiday spirit of DES employees, and also -- no, wait, there is no "also".
We don't dispute that many DES employees do care and are worthy of public mention. But if Carter is aware that, sometimes, abused children fall through the cracks and are hurt or killed, or that kids sometimes have to sleep on CPS office floors, or that a bureaucratic fumble cost dozens of people their jobs just in time for Christmas and threatened to keep families separated over the holidays, or that the public would like to hear from him on any and all of these issues, there is no indication of it here. By December 19, the date the blog was posted, the service-cuts controversy had been underway for nearly two weeks. If Carter had anything to say to those who lost their jobs as a result, or to the through-the-roof parents whose case workers were telling them that their holiday visitations were in jeopardy, he kept it to himself.
OK, fine. So why should you care?
In our democracy, our institutions and their leaders are supposed to work for us -- We, The People, as the Constitution puts it. That is why, in our 9 On Your Side Viewers' Bill of Rights, we state our belief that public officials have a duty to be responsive to the public, and to conduct the public's business in the open. It's why 9 On Your Side reporters and anchors often make the level of responsiveness we get from such officials a regular part of our reporting.
All elected and appointed officials are, in theory, accountable to the people. And the more powerful the agency, the more important it is for that agency, and its leaders, to hold themselves accountable to the public. There are times when a "no comment" just doesn't cut it.
Aside from law enforcement officers, who carry guns, can you think of a single type of official more powerful than one who is able to take someone's kids away?
It's an awesome but necessary power. If there were no troubled families, we would not need CPS. But there are, and we do.
But strong power requires strong accountability. The problem with CPS is that while it insists on citizens being accountable to it -- a power it must have to be effective -- it just doesn't get that the reverse also must be true. CPS must be accountable to the public.
Left to its own devices, CPS is unlikely to change. But that is where democracy comes in. CPS gets away with its stonewalling only if you let it.
Clarence Carter is your appointed official. If he won't talk to us, maybe he'll talk to you. Carter's published office number (during regular business hours) is (602) 542-4791.
If you also get the brush-off, then perhaps your state representative or state senator will talk with you. If these issues concern you, consider giving them a call. Two Tucson area lawmakers who've expressed concern to KGUN9 about these issues are State Senator Linda Lopez and State Senator Steve Farley. They're interested. Lopez' published office number in Phoenix is (602) 926-4089. Farley's is (602) 926-3022.
And there's always the governor, who is head of the state administrative branch and therefore Carter's boss. Governor Jan Brewer's office number is (602) 542-4331.
Or, you could do nothing. Silence is the people's way of telegraphing to their elected leaders and civil servants that they think everything is just fine. That, also, is one way democracy works.
Either way, it's up to you.
Update: with CPS leaders hiding behind closed doors, 9 On Your Side filed a public records request to determine whether internal documents might shed light on what went on here. They did. You can find our updated investigation, along with our entire series of CPS reports and investigations, in our "CPS Struggles" special coverage section under the Hot Topics tab on kgun9.com, or click here.
KGUN9 recognizes that it, too, is an institution you have a right to hold accountable. Share your comments about any story we cover via KGUN9.com or our Facebook page.
*Footnote - if you're not up on your classical mythology, check out the 12 Tasks of Hercules, with particular attention to Herculean Labor #5 at the Augean Stables.