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

Tajuana Davidson's demise soon became big news statewide, on the heels of massive publicity about 2-year-old China Marie Davis' murder, allegedly at the hands of her Phoenix foster mother.

Agency records reflect CPS' deep concern about the sudden media focus on Tajuana's murder. But the news stories mentioned Brandon Palmer's return home only in passing, if at all, focusing almost exclusively on Tajuana.

The glare of publicity had an immediate effect on Brandon's situation. Within a few days, the agency quietly reversed its decision to reunify him with his parents. It again placed Brandon in a foster home, then allowed him to move in with Joquitta Palmer's sister, where he remains today.

For reasons unclear to law enforcement sources close to the case, no one has been charged in Tajuana Davidson's death. The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office has officially ruled it a homicide.

And no one in authority at CPS is challenging the policy that led the agency to routinely return a young boy to parents strongly suspected of being child murderers.

@sub:The Way Things Are
@body:To the uninitiated, the goings-on at CPS that led to Brandon Palmer's temporary return home might seem puzzling, even bizarre. But those familiar with the state of Arizona's child-welfare system aren't surprised.

Brandon's return home wasn't an isolated mistake. CPS policy and practice is to work aggressively to reunify troubled families in almost all circumstances--sometimes at unfathomable costs to Arizona's children.

No system designed and implemented by humans can guarantee perfection. But under the rubric of "family preservation," CPS continues to give children back to parents who have proven, beyond all doubt, that they are unfit to be any child's guardian.

The severance of parental rights is one of the most drastic measures a government can take. But CPS' reliance on family reunification as a single, generic solution to the problem of child maltreatment strikes many experts as dangerous and irresponsible.

Gary Robbins, a crusading children's attorney now practicing in Flagstaff, recalls only one case in 11 years--a child-torture case--in which CPS' goal was not reunification. "It could be said that CPS requires blood, bruises or broken bones to intervene in a child's life," he says.

"In wife-beating cases," adds deputy Maricopa County attorney Dyanne Greer, a specialist in child-homicide prosecutions, "you get the wife out of the home. Put a kid in the picture and CPS says, 'We must reunify the, quote, sacrosanct, family.' Then they won't force treatment, because Mom and Dad didn't beat the kid up bad enough to kill him."
Shrouded in secrecy, CPS subscribes to the theory that no news is good news. Even law enforcement officials sometimes gain only limited access to case histories.

Material for this story comes from public records, interviews and confidential government reports. In all, New Times researched more than 40 court cases and interviewed 57 people in Arizona and around the nation. Among the findings:

ù Arizona officials have grossly misinterpreted a federal law that demands "reasonable efforts" be made to reunify troubled families. CPS' attempts to reunify children with parents are obsessive and often futile, not "reasonable" by any definition of the word.

ù CPS can't say if its policy of reunification-first is working. The agency doesn't track recurrence of abuse in reunified families, even though statistics suggest Arizona is the second-most-dangerous state in the nation for children. "There's no particular incentive to count up your failures," says an expert on the issue. "There's the hope that if you don't gather the data, people won't notice the problem."

ù Prosecutors in Arizona estimate at least half of the child-murder cases they've filed since 1989 have been committed by parents and guardians with whom CPS had prior contact. That jibes with American Public Welfare Association statistics, which say 42 percent of the 1,300 kids who died last year of abuse had previously been reported to child-welfare agencies.

ù CPS officials say they return about half the children they remove from parents or guardians within a month. For many kids who do remain in the agency's custody, however, the goal of reunification has meant no roots, one foster home after another and then a return to an abusive, dysfunctional parent.

ù After more than 18 months in foster care, studies show, a child's chances of adoption diminishes greatly. But Arizona's children often stay in foster care for years, largely because of CPS' reunification goal. When the state fears children are becoming too attached to foster families, caseworkers often order them moved to a new home, hoping to minimize problems associated with returning a child to his or her biological parents.

ù CPS claims it could lose millions of dollars in federal funding if it stops abiding by the so-called reunification mandate. But the agency's own budget manager says a cutoff is highly unlikely.

ù Other states are finally backing off their blanket policies of family preservation. California law now says Juvenile Court judges don't even have to consider reunification when a parent or guardian inflicts certain kinds of abuse. In Michigan, the child-welfare system is making quicker decisions on whether to reunify or to sever parental rights--but only after providing parents with intensive preservation services on the front end.

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