PHOENIX (AP) — Five senior Arizona child welfare employees were fired for orchestrating a plan that led to more than 6,500 Arizona child abuse and neglect cases being closed without investigations, officials said.
The firings were the first major personnel action since the cases were discovered in November.
Charles Flanagan, who heads a new state child welfare agency created in the wake of discovery of the closed cases, said an additional senior administrator at the state agency that formerly oversaw Child Protective Services was also fired Wednesday.
Flanagan briefed reporters after state police completed an investigation into what led to reports phoned into a state child abuse and neglect hotline not being investigated starting in late 2009. The discovery of the cases led Gov. Jan Brewer to pull CPS from its parent agency and create a new cabinet level post led by Flanagan to oversee child welfare cases statewide.
Flanagan said the five upper-level managers and administrators he fired were responsible for creating and overseeing the case closings against policy and in violation of state laws. He said they not only knew that what they were doing was against policy but took steps to keep their actions secret.
"There was a lack of policy, a lack of procedure, lack in systems, people made decisions that they actually documented that they knew were wrong and did them anyway," Flanagan said. "They made decisions and failed to communicate those appropriately."
All six were at-will employees, meaning that they could be fired without cause.
The lawyer for the five fired CPS workers, Terry Woods, said they acted on the orders of the fired deputy director of the Department of Economic security, the former parent agency of CPS.
"Our position is that it was unfair to terminate them for planning an operation at the request and direction of their superiors and executing it with the knowledge and direction of their superiors,' Woods said. "The person they know knew everything was Sharon, and of course she lost her job too."
Sharon is Sharon Sergent, the DES Deputy Director for Programs.
Woods said he is reviewing whether a wrongful termination lawsuit is possible.
"In Arizona, at will employees can be fired for no reason, or for a good reason, but not for a bad reason — or a reason that violates public policy," he said.
The state police report, delivered to Flanagan last Friday, was also released Wednesday. Flanagan said it contained no revelations that had not been revealed in a previous report he oversaw that was released in January that found troubling problems in CPS.
The five senior workers fired Wednesday had been on administrative leave since early December. They created a system to screen hotline reports and prevent them from being sent to field workers as a way to reduce a crushing workload on the field workers. The group had become what Flanagan called "the de facto leadership of CPS under the Division of Child Safety and Family Services."
"And they made a determination that with the increase in calls and cases that it was a crushing workload, they couldn't do the workload," he said. "And so they made the decision, a very bad decision, a dysfunctional decision, to remove cases from the field."
A team led by Flanagan is reviewing all of the nearly 6,600 cases that were not investigated between late 2009 and last November. So far, 550 children have been removed from their homes, and one in six of the cases had supplemental investigations.
Brewer pulled CPS from the Department of Economic Security in January and appointed Flanagan to lead a new agency called the Division of Child Safety & Family Services. DES is a massive state agency that also oversees unemployment benefits, Medicaid, welfare and many other social programs.
DES Director Clarence Carter remains in his job, and Flanagan said he saw no evidence that he knew of the actions of his employees. Carter's staff released a letter he sent to staff Wednesday saying he had appointed an interim Director of Programs after taking "appropriate and necessary personnel action."
"The Department of Public Safety issued its administrative review of the 'Not Investigated' CPS cases," Carter wrote. "The review paints a very troubling picture of poor policy, practice, communication and decision-making that ultimately put many vulnerable Arizona Children in harm's way."
Flanagan echoed that conclusion.
"These people that made these decisions at a managerial level and at an administrative level should have known better that this is not an appropriate way to do business," Flanagan said.
Woods said the five fired workers were asked by Sergent to come up with ways to reduce the backlog of cases.
"They come back with a plan, and the boss says, 'Yeah, I like that plan, let's go,'" Woods said.