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

"You give these people therapy," she says, "and they go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or NA [Narcotics Anonymous] for a couple of months and, by golly, they're wonderful. We've got parents of the year. Many times, they are more interested in getting these kids back home just as fast as possible regardless of whether anything has really changed."
Sandra Hagen often ends her parenting classes by reminding students about The Wizard of Oz. At its heart, she tells them, the famous tale is one of self-empowerment. Each of the characters--the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, Dorothy, even the Wizard himself--had the power to change, just like they, as parents, have.

"If you leave here with a little bit of knowledge," she concludes, "it will be like a starting point. It's like another chance. I hope and wish you'll be okay."

@sub:A State of Denial
@body:The State of Arizona recently was dragged kicking and screaming into a case--we'll call it the "Case of the Four Boys"--that illustrates its institutional inertia. Initially, the state declined to file paperwork to remove the boys from a risky environment. CPS belatedly acknowledged the danger. However, instead of arguing on the boys' behalf, the agency went all the way to the state Court of Appeals in an attempt to do nothing.

Phoenix attorney Paul Theut saw it as an open-and-shut case.
"These children needed emergency care," he told county Juvenile Court Judge Pro Tem Laura Estay last December 1. "The state has the resources. We need the state's action, not inaction."
In this instance, CPS tried to leave bad enough alone in the face of compelling evidence that intervention was proper and necessary. And after the agency finally decided to get involved, it still didn't want the cost and burden of litigating it.

Last year, a Juvenile Court judge appointed Theut as legal guardian for an 11-year-old boy in a delinquency proceeding. Theut learned the boy has three brothers, ages 10 years, 18 months and 7 months. CPS records indicate the two older boys were usually unsupervised and uncared-for.

Each of the four has a different father, none of whom is currently involved with the mother. Records indicate the mom is a drug addict.

Theut asked a CPS caseworker if the children qualified under an Arizona law that defines a "dependent" child as: "One in need of proper and effective parental care and control and has no parent or guardian, or one who has no parent or guardian willing to exercise or capable of exercising such care and control."

The caseworker said the four boys were dependent, in her eyes. But CPS hadn't filed a dependency petition because her supervisor hadn't felt it necessary.

At an October 1 hearing, Theut told Judge Estay about the dire situation. Estay appointed Theut guardian for all four boys and authorized him to file a dependency petition within 48 hours.

The judge immediately placed the two older boys in the custody of relatives and ordered CPS to take temporary custody of the two babies.

Three months passed. An investigation showed the 18-month-old was with his father, who said he was afraid the government would take the baby.

The mother went to Estay's court on December 1 prepared to fight the dependency allegations. By now, CPS agreed the four children should be found "dependent" and made wards of the court.

But assistant attorney general Aimee Burr argued it wasn't the state's job to litigate the dependency.

"We will cooperate with Mr. Theut at all costs," Burr told Estay. "We'll supply services to the mother, to the fathers, to the children. . . . But we don't feel that it should be the burden of [CPS] to bring this matter to trial."
Estay couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"This is a classic dependency," she said. "I have a [CPS] caseworker who agrees. We're basically spending county money on an attorney to do the work of the state agency that is mandated by law."
The judge ordered the Attorney General's Office substituted for Theut. Undaunted, the state took the matter, on an emergency basis, to the Arizona Court of Appeals. But in a 3-0 vote issued on April 5, the appellate court sided with Estay and Theut against the state.

"This state recognizes that children are not property of their parents," Judge E.G. Noyes Jr. wrote. "On the contrary, Arizona recognizes that children as persons have special needs and rights which are protected by law. One of those rights is the right to effective and proper parental control and care. . . ."
As for the state's refusal to litigate on behalf of the four boys, Noyes continued:

"[CPS] asks for a ruling that would, in effect, force the Juvenile Court to pay private attorneys with county funds to provide legal services for children that the state is responsible for providing with its own attorneys."
Noyes ended by citing another Arizona appellate case.
"A child is entitled to have his or her basic needs cared for," the judges in the earlier case had written. "If the parent fails to furnish these needs, the state may and should act on behalf of the child."
A postscript: The two oldest boys have been reunited with their mother. The two youngest are living with relatives.

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