The attorney for five workers fired from Child Protective Services said Wednesday that the report which led to their termination was essentially a pre-determined fix.
“The conclusion was reached before the investigation was done,” Terry Woods said of the inquiry conducted by the state Department of Public Safety on the orders of Gov. Jan Brewer. He said it is clear to him that once it became public that more than 6,500 complaints of abuse and neglect had not been investigated, a decision was made that someone had to be blamed.
And Woods said his clients were the “scapegoats.”
“The way cops do an investigation is they draw their conclusion and then they go find the evidence to support their conclusion,” he said. “I think there's a really good chance that a decision was made somewhere up the chain that some heads had to roll and that was the way this thing was going to end.”
In fact, Woods said, the decision that these five would be fired was probably made when they were first put on leave last year.
The suggestion that the inquiry was designed to produce a specific result drew an angry response from DPS spokesman Bart Graves.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We did a comprehensive investigation which is why it took us six months to complete.”
Woods represents five upper-level managers who were let go: Deborah Harper, Tracey Everitt, Janet Sabol, Michelle Parker and Jana Leineweber.
Also getting the ax last month as a result of that inquiry was Sharon Sergent who was their supervisor and who in turn reported to Clarence Carter, director of the Department of Economic Security. Woods does not represent her.
Since the problem was discovered, Brewer took responsibility for CPS oversight from Carter and transferred it to a new Division of Child Safety and Family Services headed by Charles Flanagan. Brewer intends to call lawmakers into special session this month or next to formally sever the relationship and make the division an independent state agency, with Flanagan reporting directly to her.
Carter has insisted he knew nothing about the cases marked “NI,” as in “not investigated.” But he conceded last year in an interview with Capitol Media Services that anyone reading the semiannual reports his agency produced — including lawmakers and the governor — would have recognized that some complaints were not being investigated.
“No one should have been aghast,” he said in December, even though they were listed as “not responded to” versus “not investigated.”
Brewer told Capitol Media Services earlier this week she's done looking at Carter's culpability and not interested in discussing whether he should be fired.
“I will tell you that I'm not going to go backwards,” she said. “I'm moving forward.”
The governor said that, as far as she's concerned, there's no reason to dwell on the issue now that she has “separated him totally from CPS.” Instead, she wants to focus on the upcoming special session.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the five fired workers said they were not suggesting that Carter should be fired. Instead, they argued that no one should lose a job — including themselves — because the real source of the blame is the state failing to provide the funds necessary for CPS workers to do the job they were told to do.
The whole question of what they did or did not do could become an issue if the firing reaches the courts.
Woods acknowledged state law requires every complaint of abuse and neglect to be investigated. But he said that is a mandate on the state and CPS, not on individual workers.
That gets to the heart of the defense the five are making: They were just following orders.
“I believe that we took on the task we were directed to do,” said Parker. “And we did it to the best of our ability based on the criteria we were asked to follow and the direction we were asked to go.”
Deborah Harper said reports of what they were doing went out regularly to their supervisors.
That still leaves a legal problem for Woods and any attempt to have at least four of them reinstated, with the eligible to retire anyway.
All five also were "at will'' employees, without merit protections, meaning they could be dismissed whether the state had a good reason to fire them or no reason at all. But Woods also noted there is a state Supreme Court case which says even “at will” employees cannot be dismissed for a “bad” reason.
In this case, he said, they are being fired for doing not only what they were directed to do but doing what their superiors knew they were doing.