PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers are working to limit the number of child abuse hotline calls that require full investigations, with backers saying the change would allow child safety workers to focus on cases that actually involve abuse and neglect.
Opponents, however, say not investigating hotline calls is what led to a scandal that prompted the overhaul of the state child welfare office just two years ago.
The changes are contained in House Bill 2522, which is poised for a formal vote in the Arizona House after being given initial approval on a voice vote Thursday night. That vote came after Rep. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said she was concerned the changes would formalize a process of not investigating hotline calls — a practice that led to the creation of the Department of Child Safety in 2014.
The agency was formed about six months after the discovery of nearly 6,600 hotline reports that were marked “Not Investigated,” or “NI,” and closed. A rush review by a special team assigned to go through each of the reports led to the removal of nearly 600 children from caregivers.
“My concern is by narrowing the definition of what call warrants an investigation, the potential to miss potential abusive situations exists,” Rios said Thursday. “It is a new way to categorize ‘NI.’ You just do it on the front end and say ‘well, we’re not even going to be required to investigate them anyway, that way we can’t get blamed on the back end when we didn’t do it.’”
Republican Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, who sits on a special committee overseeing child safety, said the change would filter out calls that are impossible to investigate and now clog the already overburdened system.
The changes to current law would allow hotline workers to not generate reports on some hotline calls, including ones that don’t involve criminal conduct, where the incident is more than three years old, and where there’s no information that a child is currently being abused or neglected.
“What is does provide for is for investigators to respond to truly hot cases where they can find the child, find the family and intervene as needed,” Brophy McGee said.
The hotline receives about 125,000 calls a year and currently generates about 52,000 reports that all require investigation under state law. There is no estimate on the number of reports the new guidelines will stop from being created.
Current DCS Director Greg McKay discovered the scandal of cases not being investigated in November 2013 while running a special criminal unit inside the old Child Protective Services agency. He testified before a House committee this month that the new guidelines are not designed to avoid responding to genuine abuse or neglect calls.
“We just have found that many of the efforts from the department over many years have been spent in places where there was absolutely no value,” McKay said. “The intent of this is to make sure where we are is really of value to protecting vulnerable people or strengthening families and keeping them together.”
Brophy McGee said the changes in the bill are the result of more than a year of work among lawmakers, Gov. Doug Ducey’s office and DCS workers. She said she understands the worry of people who have seen abuse or neglect reports mishandled in the past.
“That’s the big scary part for people, and one of the reasons I’m glad this bill is getting as much scrutiny as it has gotten,” she said.