Arizona CPS glitch has lawyers busy

Public and private attorneys who represent parents in child-dependency, civil and criminal cases say they're now obliged to review every Child Protective Services case file they've handled over the past 16 years in the wake of a massive state computer error.

The burden falls on these attorneys to do much of the legwork even though the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS, has hired temporary employees to sort out the mess.

The DES revealed Sept. 14 that it had failed to disclose CPS records since 1996 due to a programming error in its case-management database. The agency sent more than 30,000 notices to parents, attorneys, judges, law enforcement and the media, saying they might not have received all the documents they're entitled to under state law.

Several attorneys said their mailboxes were bulging with the notices, but they had yet to research the cases. The DES said it received more than 130 new records requests last week, including 25 from The Republic.

The notices to lawyers include no details about the case, only the case numbers. Attorneys are asked to provide the names of the parents, children and caseworkers if they want to re-request records in the case.

That will take significant research, particularly in county public defenders' offices, where thousands of parents get their legal representation.

"The only way for us to know what we didn't get is to request it all and compare," said Chris Phillis, director of Maricopa County's Office of the Public Advocate, which represents parents in CPS cases.

"It's going to be a huge burden, but one we ethically have to do," she said. "I don't know what they have, and I'm not going to guess."

Juvenile Court rules put the onus on the DES to produce records to prove their case in Dependency Court, such as recommending that a parent's legal right to his or her child be severed. Attorneys argue that the agency should have the obligation now to determine which documents were withheld and then provide them, rather than making those who requested the records do the work.

"Why is this a game of 'Go fetch?' " said attorney Mark Kennedy, who represents parents and children in Dependency Court.

"We're talking about devoting significant resources to those cases. We'll all do it, because that's what we're supposed to do," he said. "There may be kids who don't have their biological parents in their lives anymore if the parents' rights were wrongfully severed."

DES officials have said they have no record of who requested documents prior to August 2010 and they don't want to reproduce records and provide them to people who no longer want or need them.

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