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

"We have to make those 'reasonable efforts' to reunify, period, or we can lose millions because of the federal mandate," says CPS spokesperson Anna Arnold.

That's the party line of child-welfare agencies around the nation. But that's not how state Department of Economic Security budget manager Michael Nixon sees it. Nixon says Arizona likely will not lose the crucial federal funds--about $22 million last year--under any circumstances, even if the state amends its reunification-first policy.

"I obviously can't speak for the federal government," Nixon says, "but from their perspective, taking money away from a state . . . it would do more damage to children than it would help. If they tell us we have to correct something, we correct it, and that's it."
Family-reunification proponent Richard Wexler calls the "reasonable effort" mantra absurd.

"You hear that all the time," he says. "It's balderdash. The law doesn't require ridiculous efforts. And there is no law anywhere that requires the return of a child to an unsafe home. But the alternative to 'we returned the child because the law made us do it' is 'we returned this child because we screwed up.' They are not going to tell you that."

@sub:Sex Scandal in Mesa
@body:Nearly everyone who lived in Arizona in 1991 recalls the Mesa Police Department sex scandal.

Reports that July described the arrests of highly decorated Mesa cop Dick Elliget and his wife, Laurie, on charges related to sexual misconduct with children.

A grand jury indicted Dick on felony charges of sexually exploiting a 16-year-old girl. His "exploitation" included sexual molestation and taking graphic nude photographs of the girl and his wife together.

Laurie, a mother of four, faced one count of child abuse.
The Elliget case broke after the girl confided in her aunt, the wife of another Mesa cop. The girl said she'd come forward because Dick Elliget was starting the seduction process with her 13-year-old sister.

Later, it became known that Dick Elliget had arranged for numerous Mesa cops, including command-level officers, to have sex with his wife. He had kept a sex diary of these extramarital encounters as tools for potential blackmail.

The investigation revealed Elliget had looked on as a 14-year-old neighbor boy had engaged in sexual intercourse with his wife, then in her mid-30s. News accounts quoted Dick Elliget's lawyer as saying the teenage boy and girl had "consented" to the series of acts.

But the public didn't know until a November 1991 New Times story that the 16-year-old victim was the natural daughter of Dick and Laurie Elliget.

The girl told the newspaper: "I gave my Mom a chance before I turned my Dad in. I said, 'Help me, Mom, you know he's touching me, he's molesting me. Do you want me to spell it out for you?' My mom totally turned her back on her kids."

CPS placed the two older girls in foster care for a time. Grossly overweight and hooked on junk food, the two youngest children, then aged 9 and 7, stayed with relatives.

A CPS case plan dated September 24, 1991--two months after Laurie Elliget's arrest--listed as its goal: "Return [children] to mother within six months and/or reassess at staffing to be held on or before March 24, 1992."

Remarkably, the agency set its goal--reunification--while Laurie Elliget's criminal case and possible prison term were still pending.

"When we say 'Return to Parent,' that doesn't mean the child is going to go back to the parent right then," says CPS spokesperson Anna Arnold. "It's just an overall goal to try and assess the parent's ability to provide care and get treatment, because a lot of parents go into treatment."
CPS case manager Barbara Guenther expressed concerns in a confidential report about the "younger children's inappropriate sexual behavior, frequent requests for medication, reports of neglect [and] possible learning disabilities."

She noted Laurie would have to "learn and demonstrate appropriate parenting skills . . . and resolve issues of abuse in the home," among other tasks, before reunification with her children could occur.

Maricopa County prosecutors allowed Dick Elliget to plea-bargain to a charge that could have freed him from prison in less than seven years. But Superior Court Judge Steven Sheldon rejected the soft bargain and sentenced the disgraced cop to 14 years in prison.

Laurie Elliget pleaded guilty to a child-abuse charge with a maximum potential prison sentence of less than two years. Even after her guilty plea, Laurie insisted her daughter had initiated the pornographic photo sessions.

"This scenario is met with skepticism and further underscores the need for the court to provide intervention and monitoring of Mrs. Elliget," county probation officer Sandra Lewis-George wrote in a presentence report that recommended a short jail term.

By the time of her April 1992 sentencing, Laurie Elliget was making a good impression by attending parenting classes and one-on-one counseling sessions. CPS allowed her to visit her two youngest children twice per week at their therapist's office.

"Mrs. Elliget is not seen as a risk to her children," Laurie's onetime counselor, Linda Reichert, told probation officer Lewis-George. "She is not likely to reoffend on them herself, nor is she likely to become established in a relationship with another man."
Judge David Grounds sentenced Laurie Elliget to three years' probation. Not long after that, CPS reunified Laurie with three of her four kids. It's not known if the oldest daughter--the Elligets' main victim--has reconciled with her mother.

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