THE FAMILY TRAP

UNDER ITS "REUNIFICATION-FIRST" POSICY, THE STATE OF ARIZONA ROUTINELY FORCES CHILDREN TO LIVE WITH PARENTS WHO ARE UNFIT GUARDIANS BY ANY DEFINITION

Two friends were fishing one day when an infant floated by. One of the fishermen jumped into the water, grabbed the baby and handed it to his friend. Another infant soon floated by. The same fisherman saved her. Then, a whole group of drowning infants floated past. The rescuer again dove into the water, but saw his friend walking away. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted at his pal. "You save those babies," the friend yelled back. "I'm going upstream to see who's throwing them in the river."

--Folk parable

@sub:A Little Boy Goes Home
@body:The caseworker picked up the "risk assessment" form and considered the task at hand. Tom Molnar of the state's Child Protective Services agency faced a momentous decision last November 14: Should 9-year-old Brandon Palmer be allowed to live at the Casa Grande home of his parents, Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer?

Molnar had been on the case since the wee hours of November 3. He had been called in after 3-year-old Tajuana Davidson was pronounced dead on arrival at Casa Grande Regional Hospital.

Tajuana had been living with Brandon's parents, the Palmers, as a potential adopted child since that June. Brandon already considered her a sister.

In police parlance, Tajuana's death had been caused by "blunt-force trauma to the head." In layman's language, someone had beaten the hell out of the little girl, breaking her bones and inflicting deep bruises over her 28-pound body. Finally, someone had bashed in her brain.

Born addicted to cocaine, Tajuana suffered from severe developmental disabilities. The Palmers suggested she'd sustained her injuries in a spill off a toilet seat.

But pathologists and police investigators didn't buy that account.
An autopsy showed Tajuana's shoulder blade had been broken days before her death. The scope and seriousness of her more recent injuries also refuted the Palmers' explanation. And Tajuana's low body temperature proved the couple had waited longer to call 911 than they'd said.

Doctors examined Brandon and found no evidence of physical abuse. But the boy was saying little to authorities. He told caseworker Molnar he had a secret. If he spoke up, Brandon explained, the Holy Ghost wouldn't bring his sister back to life, and his parents would go to jail.

Child Protective Services placed Brandon with a relative as investigation of the Palmers continued. For days, the only public mention of Tajuana's passing was in the Casa Grande Dispatch. The newspaper reported November 5 that police considered her death a homicide.

During this time, CPS learned--apparently for the first time--that another child of Cleveland Palmer, a daughter living in California, had once accused him of physically and sexually abusing her. But the alleged attacks had happened years before, and prosecutors had determined a conviction was unlikely.

On November 12, Joquitta Palmer asked CPS to let Brandon return home. Tom Molnar's notes indicate he spoke that day with district program manager Christopher Dixon about the situation.

According to its own guidebook, CPS' goal in all cases "is to keep children safely within their own families." Agency spokesperson Anna Arnold describes what CPS normally does with the sibling of a child who may have been murdered by a parent:

"Initially, I think we would protect that child until we could determine what danger the parent was to the child," Arnold says. "We don't make those decisions by ourselves--we pull in other people like psychiatrists, psychologists. . . . We couldn't just leave the child there, because of the potential for abuse."
But with the approval of his superiors, Molnar told Joquitta Palmer on November 12 that she could pick up Brandon that day after school. She did just that. It was nine days after Tajuana Davidson's murder.

This happened before Molnar had completed his risk assessment of the Palmers and before the agency had conducted an administrative review of the case.

On November 14, a Sunday, Molnar finally completed the assessment. The form he used rates the risks parents might pose to children placed in their care. It examines factors such as stress, parenting skills, recognition of one's problems and cooperation with the agency--a category CPS always considers vital. The caseworker assigns parents or guardians one of four grades for each category--no, low, moderate or high risk to children.

Molnar concluded the Palmers were "no risk" to Brandon concerning these factors:

"No known violence."
"Actively involved in case plan and services."
"No known impairment interferes with the ability to parent."
Molnar marked the Palmers a "low risk" in these areas:
"Some unrealistic expectation/gaps in parenting skills."
"Experiencing recent stresses."

Molnar did grade the Palmers a "high risk" in two areas: They allegedly had been abusive to children and were either failing to understand or denying responsibility for that abuse.

He included a handwritten synopsis: "Parents appear to be responsible for the death of Tajuana Davidson, their adoptive daughter. However, there is no indication that Brandon has suffered abusive treatment from his parents, other than the ordeal he has experienced with the death of his adoptive sister."

Without a hint of irony, Molnar concluded that Cleveland and Joquitta Palmer were, overall, a "low risk" to their son's safety and well-being.

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