5 former Arizona child welfare workers sue state for wrongful termination

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PHOENIX — Five former Arizona child welfare workers have filed suit against the state for what they call their wrongful termination amid an agency scandal, their attorney said Wednesday.

The ex-Child Protective Services employees argue that their terminations were the result of a scheme to provide political cover to then-Gov. Jan Brewer and former Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter.

The suit comes more than a year after the state's child welfare agency was rocked by the discovery that workers had been improperly marking thousands of hotline calls as not worthy of being investigated. The scandal that unfolded beginning in November 2013 led to the agency's demise and the creation of the Department of Child Safety, which focuses solely on that mission.

The five senior CPS workers were fired in April 2014 by current DCS Director Charles Flanagan after the completion of a Department of Public Safety investigation into how the cases were improperly handled.

Flanagan said at the time that he fired the five upper-level managers and administrators because they were responsible for creating and overseeing the case closings against policy and in violation of state laws. He said they not only knew that what they were doing was against policy but took steps to keep their actions secret.

"There was a lack of policy, a lack of procedure, lack in systems, people made decisions that they actually documented that they knew were wrong and did them anyway," Flanagan said at the time. "They made decisions and failed to communicate those appropriately."

The department declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.

The fired workers defended their work, saying they followed orders to create a system that culled out low-priority cases and lowered crushing caseloads. Their lawsuit said they kept their superiors apprised of their actions at all times.

The five filed a $10.5 million wrongful termination claim in October.

In the suit filed this week in Maricopa County Superior Court, the five women — Deborah Harper, Tracey Everitt, Michelle Parker, Jana Leineweber and Janet Sabol, claim they were merely the fall-guys. They seek unspecified damages.

"In truth, plaintiffs were fired as part of a pre-ordained scheme to provide cover to the then-governor and her hand-picked director of the DES, Clarence Carter," the suit said. "To put it in the vernacular, plaintiffs were scapegoats for decisions" made by Carter or his subordinates and approved by Brewer or her staff.

Terry Woods, the women's lawyers, said he can prove that allegation.

"If we didn't think we had enough evidence, direct or indirect, to ultimately prove that we wouldn't have plead it," Woods said Wednesday. "But there's no smoking gun - we don't have a memo that says 'get these gals, protect Clarence.'"

Carter left the agency after Gov. Doug Ducey took office earlier this month.

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