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

"The mandate of reunification does not consider the large number of parents who have demonstrated their inability to parent over time," says county Juvenile Court Judge John Foreman.

"I'm thinking of people with chronic mental illness, chronic drug problems, chronic problems with the law. The most sensible thing for kids is to be in families capable of properly parenting and loving them."

@sub:So Many Chances
@body:Flagstaff police officer Paul Langston responded to reports of a disturbance at the Crown Hotel at about 1 a.m. on September 1, 1988. In a parking lot there, he saw an obviously inebriated man and a woman, standing face to face.

"They were hugging very closely," Langston later told an attorney for the woman, Kathy Begay. "And there was a small child between the two of them. . . . They weren't trying to keep the baby warm. They had had an argument and it appeared they were trying to make up. The child was unable to breathe, so I was trying to get them apart."
It was a damp, chilly night in the northern Arizona town, the temperature in the upper 40s. The six-pound newborn was clad only in a diaper and a tee shirt. He felt cold to the policeman's touch.

Baby Jessie was four days old.
Langston ordered Jessie's father, Julius Kissinger, to wrap his coat around the infant. The couple was arrested. Police took Jessie to Flagstaff Medical Center, where his temperature registered less than 96 degrees. Hospital records indicate if the infant had been outdoors much longer, he probably would have died.

Regardless, CPS reunited Begay with her two children, Jessie and 3-year-old Chad, after her release from jail pending trial.

Begay, then 22, pleaded guilty to child abuse. But a Coconino County judge treated her kindly, placing her on probation for 18 months. (Julius Kissinger went to prison on unrelated charges.)

Begay gave birth to her third child, James, in late 1989. But new troubles soon cropped up.

In March 1990, Begay watched in an alcoholic haze as a Labrador retriever mauled Jessie--by then almost 18 months old--at a Flagstaff city park. Jessie survived his second brush with death.

Prosecutors revoked Begay's probation, and the judge who had cut her a break in 1989 ordered her to prison on the original child-abuse charge.

A CPS report said Begay's mother had agreed to care for her three children "until Kathleen completes her time at DOC. . . . It is this worker's recommendation to close this case. Children are doing good!"

For nine months, Begay was one of the 1,000 or so other females in the state's penal system. About 70 percent of those women claim dependents, says Department of Corrections statistics ace Daryl Fischer.

Like most of her fellow inmates, Begay expected to be reunited someday with her children. "My kids are very important to me," she told a DOC counselor in June 1990, "and I need to be out there with them."

Toward that end, Begay built a tidy r‚sum‚ while behind bars, successfully completing parenting and substance-abuse classes. Records show she was reunited with her kids upon her release from prison in early 1991.

Begay enrolled at a Flagstaff dental academy and rented an apartment. But CPS caseworkers investigated new allegations of child abuse and neglect involving Begay within weeks.

On May 30, 1991, she dropped off baby James at a Flagstaff day-care center. The child was burning with fever, but the day-care people couldn't locate Begay at the dental academy.

A CPS report said it was the second time in a month she had taken a very ill child to the center, then couldn't be tracked down.

CPS caseworker Nancy Stiver talked turkey when the pair hooked up.
"I told her," Stiver wrote, "that if she could not be a responsible parent for her children, she should consider having her mother raise them. I also told her that if this office received another referral about her inability to be a responsible parent, that we would have to consider different consequences than just a visit to my office."
It was an idle threat. Keeping with its policy--reunify first, ask questions later--CPS allowed James to return to his mother after a doctor treated him. Stiver and her supervisor, Ann Davis, soon recommended the agency close the case:

"Children are at the grandmother's at this time and no services are needed."
Pregnant yet again in October 1991, Begay went to a Flagstaff doctor's office for a prenatal checkup. She left her three children in the waiting room as the doctor examined her.

A nurse observed that 1-year-old James had numerous bruises and scabs on his face and head. She called police and CPS.

CPS immediately took James to a Flagstaff doctor, who confirmed the baby was a victim of serious child abuse, even beyond the visible wounds.

Five months before, James had been in the 50th percentile of height and weight for his age. Now he'd dropped into the 5th percentile for height and weight--an indication of slow starvation.

An eyewitness told Flagstaff police investigators she'd seen Begay beat the child badly at a birthday party a few weeks earlier. At the party, the source said, Begay had grabbed James, yanked him over to a couch and kicked him several times. She'd then grabbed him by the head, punched him, called him "a piece of shit" and left.

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