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 apparent reason for the outburst? James had urinated on himself.
Flagstaff police detective Mike Cicchinelli interviewed Begay, who initially denied wrongdoing, blaming James' injuries on her two older boys and rotten luck.

"He got hit by a door," Begay told the detective. "I didn't punch him in the face."
After a time, Cicchinelli got in Begay's face.
"He is not being taken care of, not being fed and/or loved," Cicchinelli told her. "Do you understand what that means? You're out of a job, you've got three little kids to take care of, you're pregnant, you're in a bind. But there is never any reason to beat a child in the manner that you beat this kid.

"And this kid almost died, okay, and that would be the next step."
Begay finally owned up to hurting her third child.
"I have a lot of depression, uh, stress," she said. "I probably did lose control . . . I need help."
Cicchinelli arrested Kathy Begay on charges of felony child abuse.
She spent 18 days in jail, then was released to await trial. Although James was now in foster care, CPS and Coconino County authorities allowed Begay to live with her other two children--previous victim Jessie and his older brother, Chad.

Begay gave birth to her fourth child, Charleton, before her trial in early 1992. A jury then convicted her of beating James.

Before being sentenced, Begay told a probation officer she'd enrolled in new parenting classes. "She is working on becoming more careful with her children," the probation officer wrote, "and wants to learn how to take better care of herself and her children."

Unmoved, Judge H. Jeffrey Coker ordered a nine-year prison term.
CPS indicated it would ask a juvenile judge to legally sever the parental ties between James and his parents. (James' father was never in the picture.)

Because of Arizona's privacy laws, it's uncertain if the agency completed its effort. James is now said to be living with Begay's sister in Winslow. Begay's three other children are living with their grandmother.

DOC records show Kathy Begay will be eligible for parole in late 1996, at the age of 31. It isn't known what relationship she will be allowed to have with her offspring after her release.

@sub:The Mandate
@body:The idea behind the federal law that remains the linchpin for Arizona's reunification-first policy was sound: to keep families intact whenever possible. Before 1980, child-welfare agencies around the nation would often snatch children from their parents simply because the family was poor. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 sought to change that. At its core, the law decreed: Fewer kids should be in foster care, and when they are, it should be for shorter stays. The law's drafters hoped it would stem "foster-care drift"--which neither frees children for adoption nor returns them to their homes.

Federal law previously had provided stronger financial incentives for states to use foster care, rather than finding permanent placements for children in their custody and control. Congress hoped that by providing intensive, short-term counseling and other support systems to families in crisis, far more children would be able to stay at home than before.

The new law also made it more difficult for judges to terminate parental rights, even in cases with solid evidence of ongoing abuse. At the same time, it instructed states to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify biological parents and their children.

The feds didn't define "reasonable efforts," but said that if reunification didn't take place within 18 months, Plan B--preferably adoption--should go into effect.

This carrot-and-stick approach, Congress reasoned, would be something that motivated states and parents: The feds could withhold funding if a state didn't make undefined "reasonable efforts" at reunifying troubled families. And, conversely, the feds would provide fiscal incentives for states to enact reforms in child-welfare practices.

Though the concept behind the ambitious law may have been sound, its drafters now say they didn't reckon on what would happen in the 1980s.

"I believe that law is outmoded today," says George Miller, a California congressman and one of its sponsors. "Drug abuse and child abuse have simply overwhelmed the ability of the authorities and the resources of the best child-welfare workers to respond."
That's true, says Patrick Murphy, the Cook County, Illinois, public guardian, an attorney for 31,000 abused and neglected children.

"I think the types of kids coming to the system are much more abused and neglected than they were when the law went into effect," Murphy says. "And the underclass and drug culture have increased the number of children in foster care."
Ironically, Murphy was one of the 1980 law's biggest proponents.
"This was another one of those liberal programs that people like myself pushed which has ended up hurting the very people we wanted to help," he says. "I think that it behooves us to step aside and say, 'Wait a second, we made a mistake. Now let's correct it.'"
But the flaws in the federal law have not been corrected. And although Congress had no such intention, the law has provided a fallback position for child-welfare agencies asked about their reunification-first policies.

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