PHOENIX (AP) — About 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect that were reported to a statewide Arizona hotline over the past four years were never investigated, officials disclosed Thursday, calling it reason for "grave alarm."
A team at Arizona's Child Protective Services agency improperly designated the cases "N.I." — meaning "Not Investigated" — to help manage the heavy workload and focus on the most severe cases, said Clarence Carter, chief of the state's child welfare system.
Under state law, all reports generated via the hotline must be investigated, Carter said.
All the cases will be reviewed, officials said. At least 125 cases already have been identified in which children were later alleged to have been abused, they said.
"I don't know of any fatalities," Gregory McKay, the agency's chief of child welfare investigations, said of the botched cases.
No one has been disciplined, but Arizona's Department of Public Safety will investigate.
"There must be accountability in this matter, and I will insist on further reforms to make sure that it cannot happen again," Gov. Jan Brewer said.
The practice of misclassifying the cases and essentially closing them started in 2009, Carter said. The number rapidly escalated in the past 20 months as caseloads increased and other changes were made, and 5,000 of the 6,000 cases happened in that time, he said.
"The idea that there are 6,000 cases where we don't know whether or not children are safe, that's cause for grave alarm," said Carter, who as director of Arizona's Department of Economic Security oversees CPS and other social welfare agencies.
CPS has been one of the governor's major priorities and has suffered from understaffing and major increases in abuse reports and workloads in recent years. Brewer got approval from the Legislature in January for emergency funding for 50 new caseworkers and regular funding for 150 more in the budget year that began July 1.
In a statement, the governor called the mishandling of the cases "absolutely unacceptable."
"The most urgent priority is to ensure that each one of the children involved in these cases is safe," Brewer said. "Every case must be investigated — no exceptions, no excuses. It is not only the right thing, but it is the law."
The head of an Arizona child advocacy organization said the mishandling of the reports was just part of a whole list of problems at the agency.