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6,000 Arizona child abuse reports not investigated

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PHOENIX - Thousands of cases of child abuse that were reported to a statewide hotline in Arizona have gone uninvestigated since 2009, putting children across the state at risk, state officials disclosed Thursday.

The cases were misclassified as not requiring investigations beginning in 2009, and the number rapidly escalated since January as caseloads increased and a new hotline process was put in place, said Clarence Carter, head of the state's child welfare system.

There are about 6,000 cases that will need review, Carter said. About half of them were received this year. At least 125 cases already have been identified where children subsequently became the subject of another child abuse investigation.

Arizona's Child Protective Services department has been one of Gov. Jan Brewer's major priorities and has suffered from understaffing and major increases in abuse reports and workloads in recent years. She got approval from the Legislature in January for emergency funding to for 50 new caseworkers and regular funding for 150 more in the budget year that began July 1.

Carter said Brewer was very upset when he told her what had been discovered.

"I will say that some of that might not be printable. Her response was significant. It was - I have never seen my boss, the combination of anger and sadness, in the time I've been in this position," said Carter, director of the Department of Economic Security.

"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," he added.

The problems were exposed after a police agency contacted child welfare investigators in August and asked the status of a report, said Gregory McKay, the agency's chief of child welfare investigations. While that case was being reviewed, another report came in, and McKay said a review quickly found the original hotline reports had been labeled as "N.I.," for not investigated.

He then launched a review and found that since January, 2,971 cases have been labeled N.I., and at least 1,700 merited investigation.