- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 16, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - An Arizona Supreme Court decision not to review a ruling upholding the firings of five social workers who said they were made scapegoats has put an end to a 2013 scandal that enveloped the state’s former Child Protective Services agency.

The high court in a brief order Monday declined to review a Court of Appeals decision that said the five women were at-will employees not protected by state civil service law.

“I’m deeply disappointed for these very nice ladies, but not surprised and not prepared to be critical of the Supreme Court,” their attorney, Terry Woods, said Tuesday. “I thought the Court of Appeals ruling wasn’t so good, but I understand the Supreme Court operates differently.”

The five senior agency workers were fired months after the November 2013 discovery that thousands of child abuse hotline calls were labeled as not worthy of being investigated. The agency was then shuttered and a new Department of Child Safety was created.

The workers’ lawsuit said they were top employees chosen to help review inactive cases under a plan devised by their superiors to try to cut down on a crushing caseload for field workers.

They said they were only following orders to go through thousands of cases and chose those to be investigated and those that could be closed. A deputy director of Child Protective Services’ parent agency also was fired for approving their plan and did not sue.

The five women - Deborah Harper, Tracey Everitt, Michelle Parker, Jana Leineweber and Janet Sabol - claimed they were turned into scapegoats and sought unspecified monetary damages. The deputy director did not did not sue.

Their work became the subject of a statewide scandal in November 2013 when the head of the agency’s criminal investigations unit, Greg McKay, followed up on a hotline report case that was never investigated and discovered thousands more.

About 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect reported to the hotline in the four years before the discovery were never investigated. It took more than a year for a new team to review all those cases, and they found that more than 400 children were removed from their homes after follow-up reports or investigations.

A team led made up of the five fired workers agency improperly designated the cases “N.I.” - meaning “Not Investigated” - to help manage the heavy workload and focus on the most severe cases, agency officials said at the time. Under state law, all reports generated via the hotline must be investigated.

The scandal led to the agency’s demise and the creation of the Department of Child Safety, now led by McKay.

The ex-Child Protective Services employees argued their terminations were the result of a scheme to provide political cover to then-Gov. Jan Brewer and Clarence Carter, who headed the Department of Economic Security.

The workers argued they were illegally fired for political reasons and not because they failed at their jobs. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Robert Oberbillig dismissed the case, saying state law allowed the firings even if they were scapegoats for others’ actions.

Woods pointed to Arizona’s employment laws, which limit fired workers’ ability to seek help from the courts.

Many state employees lost civil service protections after then-Gov. Jan Brewer championed an overhaul of the state merit system protections through the Legislature in 2012. Between 2015 and December, about 500 workers at the state’s largest agency, the Department of Economic Security, were fired.

Changes would be needed at the Legislature to stop alleged abuses Woods said led to his clients’ firings.

“It’s a thankless job being a social worker, because all you deal with is broken this and broken that,” he said. “These were cream of the crop ladies. I’m just disappointed we couldn’t help them.”

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