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

@sub:Parenting Class
@body:The mothers sit in a circle behind school desks, listening intently to their teacher. Sandra Hagen is speaking about the "art" of parenting. She is soothing, low-key, direct, approachable.

Some of the women are shy, and prefer to concentrate on jotting down what they're hearing. Others gab about their own experiences as children and then as parents. They recall some good times, but dwell more on the bad and the ugly.

Many say their parents beat them severely as youngsters. In turn, some of these women say they have taken out their own frustrations and failures on their offspring. Hagen warns them there will be no quick fixes here. The women nod in agreement.

Hagen asks her students to choose three crayons with colors that match their moods. She instructs them to draw pictures that represent their feelings at the moment.

Ginger Thompson, a slight, pale-white woman in her late 20s, starts to draw with her selected colors--pink, yellow and green. Her vision is serene, a friendly sun draping a big tree dotted with pink and yellow foliage.

Another woman has taken a darker approach: Her drawing is more abstract, with purple and magenta arrows going in incomplete circles. Hagen shows the two drawings to the class of 15. She speaks of the conflicting emotions apparent in the latter's artistic effort. Imagine coming home one day and taking out all this confusion on your child, she says.

"It's not what you say to your children . . ." she tells the class, then pauses for a moment.

They know the drill.
"It's how you say it," they chime in.
Ginger's drawing evokes a far different response. The pastoral scene reminds Hagen of going on picnics and of laughing children.

"If you really want to do it, you can apply yourself and do it," Ginger says. "I'm going to be an overachiever."
It's where she's going to be an overachiever that's shocking. Ginger and the other women are prisoners at the Maricopa County Jail, awaiting the proceedings in their criminal cases.

Almost all of the women are locked up on drug-related offenses. Only five raise their hands when asked if they are currently in the CPS system.

But Ginger Thompson stares up at the ceiling before she reveals her crime.
"Uh, I killed my kid," she finally says, betraying little emotion. She's referring to one-month-old Chelsea Thompson, who died in west Phoenix last June after suffering a fractured skull, broken ribs and numerous bruises.

A single mother, Ginger explains she had been fighting severe postpartum depression on the fatal night. Her newborn just wouldn't stop crying, and something bad happened. She claims no memory of hurting Chelsea, but does recall shaking the sobbing infant.

At a hearing scheduled a few days after the class, Ginger says, she's going to plead no contest to second-degree murder and guilty to child abuse. A prison term of 15 years without possibility of parole awaits her. Her only child--she previously gave up another child for adoption--is dead.

Why in the world is she taking a parenting class?
"God willing, I hope to have another," she replies softly.
Parenting classes are a key component in Arizona's reunification-first policy. That Ginger Thompson was allowed to participate proves the program welcomes all comers, and no one argues that the classes harm anyone. But how much they can help truly troubled parents is open to debate.

"The classes can never hurt you," says Flagstaff attorney Gary Robbins. "But sometimes, they're like taking aspirin or vitamin C when a bone should be set. For a person who has killed a child, parenting classes aren't going to be of much help."
Juvenile Court Commissioner Chris Wotruba says she's concerned that some consider parenting classes a panacea.

"You can't spoon-feed the parents every step of the way," she says, referring to parenting classes and the myriad other parent-assistance organizations sanctioned by CPS. "Once those services are withdrawn, those parents sometimes aren't any better off than they were before CPS and the courts got involved."
Some involved in running the parenting programs, such as Parents Anonymous of Arizona teacher Sandra Hagen, are keenly aware of that. Hagen keeps her sights low, simply hoping her classes provide troubled parents a seed for change.

But there are also pie-in-the-sky types like Larry Wieland of Valle del Sol, a nonprofit organization connected with CPS. He says he's never met a parent who couldn't become an adequate care giver.

"We never give up, ever, until they say, 'Get out of our face,'" Wieland says. "There is very little we can do at that point. But if they are still motivated, we don't give up. And CPS has that same attitude."
To prove his point, Wieland says 95 percent of the parents who come through Valle del Sol's doors are reunified with their children. But he can't say how many of those parents reabuse their kids and end up back in the system.

"You've got to be careful what you call success," he concedes, "because sometimes you're pleased as punch that they are sitting in the class."
Phoenix children's attorney Sheilah Lavelle looks askance at the child-welfare system's infatuation with parenting classes.

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