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

Hospital records showed the baby had been born addicted to cocaine, and that he'd never been treated by a doctor after his birth.

"Home" was a ramshackle, one-bedroom dwelling on West Monroe. The Arispe sisters, then in their late 20s, lived there with the 11 children they had between them--Adela's four (before Richard died) and Ada's seven.

The refrigerator was empty. One reason, Adela admitted, was that she'd sold her food stamps for crack cocaine during and after her pregnancy.

During their initial investigation of Richard's death, Phoenix police saw four-month-old David Arispe--Ada's newborn. That baby, too, was nothing but skin and bones.

CPS took David to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from "nutritional neglect." The infant had gained three ounces during his four months of life.

Police arrested the Arispe sisters on child-abuse charges. News of Richard's agonizing death horrified the Valley. But it shouldn't have startled those in the child-protection system who knew of the sisters.

Adela had been the subject of CPS investigations since 1986. Before Richard, she had given birth to two other cocaine-addicted children. The agency had also investigated Ada for child abuse and neglect six times since she first gave birth at the age of 20. Ada's seven children were by three men, and she was pregnant again by a fourth man.

Ada had once started parenting classes at the urging of CPS, but soon dropped out and failed to follow other directives. But the agency took no substantive actions against her. Ada told police that the oldest child, a 9-year-old girl, looked after the others while she and sister Adela were out partying. She insisted she had taught the children not to go into the kitchen without an adult. Kitchens can be dangerous, she said.

Hardened county prosecutors were especially sickened by the Arispe sisters.
"You look at what happened and you say to yourself, 'Why didn't someone--another family member, CPS, anyone--do something?'" says deputy county attorney Dyanne Greer, who prosecuted the women. "But nonaction seems to be the norm in these cases."
Greer points out that about half of the 15 or so child homicides she's prosecuted have been committed by parents or guardians with previous CPS contact. That estimate holds up around the state, says Kathleen Mayer, a Pima County prosecutor who is also on that county's Child Fatality Review Board.

Ada pleaded guilty to a charge of felony child abuse in late 1991. She spoke with a probation officer before sentencing.

"She hopes the court . . . includes participation in parenting skills, as she feels she needs it," the officer's report said. "She wants to be reunited with her children, wants a different relationship with her children."
A friend of Ada's told the officer, "To the best of my knowledge, she is a very nice lady and she is very good with kids, and she has a lot of patients with them."

The ironic misspelling may have been unintentional.
Phoenix police detective Larry Addington took a different tack. "The only reason the victim [David] lived was because the nephew died," Addington said.

That echoed the sentiments of probation officer Laura Brobst.
"There is no way this writer can imagine the suffering this victim experienced," she wrote, in recommending a prison term. "Ms. Arispe has been afforded the opportunity to change her behavior and reunite with her children via services offered through CPS, yet has failed to take advantage of them. . . . She is a risk to the welfare of her children."
Ada failed to appear for sentencing on December 30, 1991. Police arrested her the following month for driving with a suspended license. She said she'd "experienced bad dreams that something will happen to her children" and had decided to seek a permanent residence for them while on the lam. (CPS had taken custody of her brood.)

In a lenient mood, Judge Robert Hertzberg sentenced Ada to one year in jail for allowing her son David to nearly starve to death.

Now it was sister Adela's turn.
County prosecutors had wanted Adela Arispe convicted of murdering her newborn, Richard. But there were problems. Pathologists listed the cause of death as bronchopneumonia, a condition that can lead to an impaired immune system. It was murder by omission, a tough sell.

A jury convicted Adela in June 1992 of reckless child abuse.
CPS caseworkers told probation officer Diane Knuepfer that Adela's three surviving children were living with their natural father's parents. The children were said to be doing well. But Knuepfer did not preclude the chance that Adela may someday be reunited with her surviving children.

"Adela should learn necessary parenting skills in order to adequately care for her children," Knuepfer's report concluded.

Judge Peter D'Angelo sentenced Adela to ten years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in September 1996, at the age of 31.

Prison officials ask incoming inmates to describe, in writing, how they wound up behind bars. Some of those descriptions fill pages. Adela Arispe's handwritten account is three lines long: "My baby had pneumonia. I never took him to the doctor, and he died in March 91. So they got me on child abuse."

Shortly after Adela's conviction, her sister Ada escaped from the work-furlough program at the Maricopa County Jail. Authorities have yet to find her. CPS officials say the law prevents them from revealing who has the care and control of her children, who now number eight.

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