Joy Spencer-Austin was supposed to be the last line of defense for at-risk kids in troubled homes.
But as a Child Protective Services worker in Pima County, she blew off more than 30 cases between 2009 and 2011, records show.
She sometimes left reports blank, failing to write any case notes. She claimed to respond to abuse reports - but people would later tell CPS officials they never had any contact with her. At least once, Spencer-Austin tried to close a case without attempting to find the parents or the child.
Spencer-Austin is one of eight CPS employees in Pima County to be fired this year. A number of other CPS employees from Pima County have been placed on administrative leave or left the agency to avoid disciplinary action. The longtime head of CPS here, Lillian Downing, has been replaced.
Flora Sotomayor is now in charge, while Downing has become "metro program manager."
Many of these employees are tied to the tragedies of Za' Naya Flores, who lived for 21 months until starving to death; and Vanessa Martinez, all of 11 weeks, found buried in the desert.
The firings include:
• Donald Hauser, who copied and pasted the same case notes into his reports month after month while Za' Naya starved.
• Mia Henry, who placed little Vanessa in foster care after she and her mother tested positive for drugs. Vanessa's parents are now charged with murder. It's unclear from the records why Henry was dismissed.
• Deborah Headen, a supervisor whose team routinely failed to see kids, or at least document contacts.
Hauser did not return messages. Headen would not comment. In an appeal of her firing, she wrote that her team dramatically improved when it came to seeing kids and documenting it.
Other employees have left the agency or been placed on leave. These include: June Willson, Alexa Wolf, Francisco Aguirre and David Barfield.
At some point, the names start running together.
Piecing together the firings and disciplinary actions has taken months - my first records request was in February - and the record remains incomplete. CPS has claimed administrative leave is not a disciplinary action - even though several employees placed on administrative leave have been fired.
The agency has refused to release charge letters - formal notices of a potential firing - saying they are not disciplinary actions. Case records have been blacked out. Not surprisingly, Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter would not comment.
"The charge letters are public documents. That's ridiculous. I don't think anybody who has been placed on administrative leave and received a charge letter would think it's not disciplinary," Dan Barr, a prominent Phoenix-based First Amendment attorney, told me.
"If they have a new aggressiveness in holding people accountable then they should have no problem making that transparent," Barr said.
The few records CPS has provided reveal an agency long without internal controls.
Case in point: Spencer-Austin, who blew off cases for years.
"On or about August 15, 2011, it was discovered while you documented that you had responded to the report on November 20, 2009, there was no documentation in the file relating to contact with the family or documentation relating to an investigation taking place," her February termination letter says.
Further details are then blacked out - until this sentence: "In speaking with (name blacked out), she denied having any prior contact with you."
Or another case: "On or about August 15, 2011, it was discovered that you sent the case to pending closure yet you did not make adequate attempts to locate the parents and child detailed in the report. In speaking with (name blacked out), she denied having any prior contact with you."
I couldn't reach Spencer-Austin. But I did reach Chuck Gillette, whose son, Anthony, was killed in a hit-and-run over Labor Day 2010 despite being in CPS care. Spencer-Austin was Anthony's CPS worker.
While Anthony's case is not listed in Spencer-Austin's termination letter, her treatment of other cases left Gillette furious.
He has said he begged CPS to let him keep his son, but the agency placed the boy with his mother, who let him run with gangs.
"There were red flags all over the place," Gillette said. "Her response was, 'My hands are tied.' "
We don't know what Spencer-Austin did or didn't do in Anthony's case, but can you blame Gillette for wondering?
The records also show the immense caseload pressure CPS workers face.
Hauser, who copied and pasted his notes about little Za' Naya, offered this defense:
"My response is that CPS was unable to meet its own policy and forced far too many cases upon myself," he wrote in a resignation letter. "On multiple occasions I asked my supervisor for recommendations on how to cover my cases because the Department was dangerously overloading this worker with too many cases."
Headen, the fired CPS supervisor, wrote, "In August 2011, my ongoing unit had been responsible for more children than any other unit in the region for over a year. My seven case managers were responsible for over 200 children compared to other units who had 20-50 less. My staff and I were, at one point, required to see 221 children which would be equal to twice the number of children (15 for each FTE) recommended by the Child Welfare Alliance for an ongoing case manager. My staff was doing the work of 14 case managers."
There is no excuse for the number of CPS tragedies we've witnessed. No excuse for copying and pasting case notes, cooking reports or failing to contact children.
But given the caseloads, maybe it's also unfair to expect CPS to be an effective safety net.
We've lived with this broken and secretive system for so long, it's almost impossible to see what will make it better.
Contact Brodesky at 573-4242 or email@example.com