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

"When the state intervenes in a family's life, that's a pretty strong action to take," says CPS spokesperson Arnold. "I think parents deserve a chance to demonstrate whether they can provide care for their children."
But the agency's policy assumes all parents are innately able to bond and properly care for their children.

If only that were true.
It wasn't until 1962 that child abuse was formally recognized as a serious threat to kids' lives. That's when Dr. Henry C. Kempe wrote The Battered Child Syndrome, which concluded that the family is society's most violent unit.

Kempe and others tied familial abuse to the concept of children as the "property" of a parent. That concept lives on.

"I've heard so many times, 'These are my kids and I'll do what I damned well please with them,'" says Phoenix psychologist Jeffrey Harrison. "How much of a right do you have to provide a poor environment for your child? I don't know, exactly. But we're on kind of a cusp now. Either we're going to protect them or not protect them."
To put it mildly, that has been easier said than done.
"It's obviously preferable that children are raised with their parents," says Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Barry Silverman, a Juvenile Court veteran now working in Domestic Relations.

"But a tension has been built into the law--we want people to be raised by their parents instead of by strangers. But what if you put both parents together and don't get one good one?

"Every CPS case shouldn't have a goal of a return home. Those kind of competing things just drive us nuts."
Silverman's point gives rise to a difficult question. We now live in a nation in which there are more kids than there are good homes. Is it better to return children to abusive homes or to let them languish in foster care?

Both liberals and conservatives prefer to err on the side of "family preservation"--which, in practical terms, has meant reunification-first, right or wrong.

Conservatives want to limit the state's intervention into the private sphere of family life, with savings to taxpayers. Liberals want to support families and children they view as needy or disadvantaged.

The Clinton administration has jumped on the bandwagon, appropriating $1 billion last year for "family preservation" programs. But little of that sum will go toward research to assess how effective the programs are.

"Reunification is wonderful if it results in reunifying," says Kay Ekstrom, president of the Phoenix-based Christian Family Care Agency. "And anybody looking out for the child's best interest starts with trying to fix the family of origin.

"But what if you have to push that mom for months and months and months, and she has no motivation for getting better? She just wants to get rid of the kids. Even then, we see case after case where children are returned to overly dangerous situations."
Or, says Dr. Erik Benjamin, the children wind up in the numbing limbo of foster care.

"Caseworkers constantly go back and offer parents another chance because they have to," says Benjamin, section chief of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "Or the parents will show up impulsively and say, 'I want my kid back.' Then they back out and do something self-destructive. The kids are the ones who suffer."
Public sentiment on the issue blows like a fickle wind, depending on the newest CPS horror story.

A few years ago, the going theme in the media and at the Arizona legislature went like this: State caseworkers are akin to Nazi storm troopers, raiding homes and snatching children from parents falsely accused of child abuse. Some, but certainly not all, of the horror stories were true. Says Phoenix attorney Ann Haralambie, an experienced hand in children's cases: "A lot of people really did abuse their children and just lied about the circumstances to the legislators. I've sat in hearings where my own clients have gotten up and talked about what happened, and I knew it wasn't true."

Arizona politicos responded to the tales by convening new committees and talking loudly.

Recently, the general sentiment has shifted. Sniffing a change in public opinion, legislators who once blasted CPS for breaking up families now howl a different lament. In the wake of the Tajuana Davidson and China Marie Davis murders, the state is now being accused of doing too little to prevent foster-home tragedies.

(Actually, the National Family Violence Survey says foster parents are no more likely to hurt children than biological parents.)

The result at CPS of the opinion shifts has been defensive social work that continues to harm children. Mindless reunification is among the most damaging of these defensive practices.

In the end, the state's child-welfare system protects itself first. Variable political winds have created an environment in which a kind of bureaucratic hypnosis--Tom Molnar's slipshod risk-assessment of the Palmers is an example--may flourish.

Even nationally known family-preservation advocate Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform admits the emphasis on automatic reunification is wrong.

"When an agency is asked, 'Why did you return that child to that obviously unfit mother?', are they going to answer, 'My caseworker was an idiot'? Or are they going to say, 'It's a mandate'?" Wexler asks. "If you're a bureaucrat, what's the safest answer?"
The "safest answer" has resulted in a system in which Arizona children may be held hostage by something the state calls a "family."

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