For a group of child-welfare investigators, it was not a good look: Bright pink T-shirts stating “professional kidnapper” on the front.
On the back: “Do you know where your children are?”
The attire, apparently worn during work hours, led to the firing of multiple staffers last month, multiple sources in Prescott and in child-welfare circles told The Republic. One former staffer, reached by The Republic, confirmed she had been fired over the shirt, but would not speak on the record.
As a result, a Department of Child Safety office in Prescott was apparently left with one investigator to handle complaints of child neglect and abuse.
A DCS spokesman, in an e-mail late Monday, declined to provide details on reports of the firings, writing “The department does not comment on personnel matters.”
Nor did DCS comment on how the agency is coping with a drastically reduced investigations staff. The agency is advertising job openings in the area.
The T-shirts were an apparent attempt to poke fun at critics’ portrayal of DCS. The agency’s detractors have long raised concerns that it removes children from families too easily, and is biased against parents, with some going so far as to accuse it of kidnapping.
But Christina Sanders, a former DCS unit supervisor, said the dismissals were long overdue. When she heard about a photo showing the investigators posing in the T-shirts, she had enough. She emailed DCS Director Mike Faust, exasperated at their conduct. She has since seen the photo and confirmed it depicts some of her former co-workers.
In one photo, apparently shot in the parking lot of the DCS Prescott office, several of the staffers are facing the camera and several have their backs turned, presumably to show the messages on both sides of the T-shirt. All appear to be wearing masks covering their nose and mouth and one has her work badge dangling from her T-shirt.
Sanders said it’s almost an insult that it took the T-shirt incident to end what she said was a long-standing practice of bullying and entitlement in the Prescott office.
“They think they’re so untouchable, they don’t think they can get caught,” Sanders said, adding she blames the staff’s supervisors for tolerating and even encouraging the behavior.
She believes they were able to get away with their abrasive behavior because DCS is in constant need of workers, and several of the investigators have years of experience.
Sanders said she never heard back directly from Faust, other than a notice that the complaint had been forwarded to the agency’s ombudsman. But word of the firings spread quickly in the community and in child-welfare circles.
Sanders herself was put on administrative leave last year after, she said, when she refused to move a young boy to a group home in Phoenix, arguing it was not a proper placement. That same day, she said, she received a “thank-you” letter from then-DCS Director Greg McKay for her work and a long-sleeved DCS T-shirt.
“I tell you, one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing,” she said.
She later got another letter, notifying her she had been terminated.
Inside the office
In response to questions from The Republic, DCS could not immediately verify Sanders’ claims.
The Republic attempted to contact several of the reportedly fired investigators. They either declined comment or did not return messages. But one of them characterized the T-shirts as an inside joke and a way to relieve the stress of the job.
Kenny Rummell, a former investigator, filed a complaint with DCS’ human-relations office early last year, fed up with what he described as an office culture that allowed the female employees “to do whatever to whomever they want.” He was the only male in the office.
He accused his supervisor, Julie Bloss, of harassment, creating a hostile work environment, discrimination based on gender, sexual harassment, and slander, according to the complaint. He said he never got a response from the HR office. But he was moved to the Prescott Valley office, where the work environment was much better.
Rummell said he later left when he learned he would be transferred to the agency’s Kingman office.
DCS could not immediately verify Rummell’s claims about his employment.
Bloss did not immediately return a message left for her Monday evening.
What the photos show
The Arizona Republic obtained photos of the T-shirts, which have been widely circulated by text messages and emails among people who work in parts of the child-welfare system beyond DCS.
The Republic could not immediately verify the identities of all the people shown in a group photograph. But the staged nature of the outdoor photo — the women wearing the shirts pose side-by-side, some displaying the words on the back of the shirt, others the front — suggests whoever took the picture was in on the joke.
Claire Louge, executive director of Prescott-based Prevent Child Abuse Arizona, said the T-shirt’s message is disturbing.
“It really illuminates that people in the system are biased against parents,” she said. That’s directly counter to the message that DCS, and groups such as hers, are trying to communicate: That children are better off with their parents, as long as troubled families can get support.
A woman whose child was removed by one of the fired investigators said the photo enraged her. She declined to give her name for fear it would jeopardize her ongoing case in juvenile court.
About this report
An ongoing grant from the Arizona Community Foundation supports reporting on child-welfare issues.
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Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl