RECKLESS ABANDONMENT

SHE WAS ROBBED OF HER HEARING AT BIRTH. SHE WAS ROBBED OF A HOME LIFE BY AN INDEFFERENT MOTHER. SHE WA ROBBED OF HER VIRGINITY AT AGE 12, BECOMING A MOTHER AT AGE 14. AND DESPITE CLEAR EVIDENCE OF ABUSE, IT TOOK THE SYSTEM YEARS TO COME TO HER AID.

Benita Venegas shuts her dark eyes and considers something for several seconds. The 16-year-old fixes her inquisitor with a mournful expression.

Suddenly, she pounds her left fist into her chest and releases a haunting, high-pitched wail. She whirls to face her foster mother, Ellen White, a Paradise Valley woman in her late 40s.

"My real mom called me a puta, a slut, because of what happened to me," Benita spits out in rapid-fire sign language.

White is one of Arizona's most experienced translators of American Sign Language. But she must concentrate to keep up with the torrent pouring out of Benita in hand movements, facial expressions and body shifts.

This must be how deaf people scream.
"My mother never taught me shit," the girl continues, hands flying, her face now vibrant. "She told me to be a slave to those assholes. She knows the truth. I can be a bitch, but I'm not stupid. I have a good brain. But I got pregnant. I was a little girl before that, a virgin."

Deaf since birth, Benita's schooling lags behind most her age--deaf or hearing. She still struggles to tell time and count money. But she's right about having a good brain. Though she'd rather be goofy and irresponsible, Benita is capable, when pressed, of astonishing insight.

Her 32-month-old son, Rafael Venegas, plays with a ball at her feet. Ralfy, as he's called, was born in February 1992, six days after Benita's 14th birthday. He's a dynamo whose hearing is normal--when he wants it to be.

Benita begins to weep, a tiny bundle of pent-up nerves and rough edges. She ignores the tears and carries on.

"Most hearing people are bad news," she says. "Sorry, but I don't like their stupid ways. I can hear things in my mind that they can't hear--my things."

Unfortunately, these are not merely the bleatings of an overwrought, handicapped teenager. Benita has been badly scarred by abuse--sexual, physical, emotional.

After she entered puberty--at the age of 12--her mother, Amelia Fernandez, allowed two adult brothers to use Benita as a sex toy. The brothers intermittently lived with Benita in her mother's apartment during a three-year period.

But her mother's failures tell only part of Benita's story. Corroborated by public records and eyewitness accounts, the details sadden and infuriate her foster parents and others.

They can't fathom why child-protection caseworkers, Phoenix police detectives and Maricopa County prosecutors ignored the girl's plight for so long. They know the facts of Benita Venegas' case warranted decisive action:

ù Records indicate that Child Protective Services received more than two dozen complaints from school officials and concerned citizens who reported that Benita was being sexually and physically abused. The agency didn't move to protect her for years, even after Benita got pregnant at the age of 13.

ù Phoenix sex-crime detectives first investigated the two brothers who had sex with Benita, Javier and Rafael Machuca, in the summer of 1991. But they didn't pursue the case with vigor, even after one of the brothers, then in his late 20s, confessed. The police claimed Benita was uncooperative, making a successful investigation impossible.

ù A county prosecutor declined in 1993 to file charges against one of the Machuca brothers for sexually abusing Benita. He did this, however, without interviewing the girl or asking detectives to investigate further.

CPS officials don't comment on specific cases without a judge's permission, which they didn't receive in this instance. But other authorities are scrambling to justify their abandonment of Benita Venegas.

"It's a shame that a case could stumble along like this until we could finally make something work," says Al Thiele, a Phoenix police lieutenant who heads the sex-crimes unit. "Things can be learned from this experience."

Adds Vince Imbordino, the prosecutor who first declined to prosecute the case last year: "This may be one of those cases that initially slipped through the cracks. If what we did was wrong, it was my fault."

If not for the outraged persistence of Benita's foster mother, Ellen White, the girl and the Machuca brothers probably would have vanished into oblivion. Even with White's efforts, however, prosecutors didn't urge detectives to make a case against the Machuca brothers until they learned that New Times was preparing a story about Benita.

Rafael Machuca, now 22, took a paternity test earlier this year in an effort to win custody of little Ralfy. The test indicated that he had fathered the boy.

On August 17--three years after they received their first tip about Benita Venegas--Phoenix police arrested Rafael and Javier Machuca on felony sex-abuse charges. Both brothers gave self-incriminating statements after their arrests, but since have pleaded innocent. They are in custody at the Maricopa County Jail, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Only about one in ten deaf children in the United States is born to deaf parents. The others are raised in families with no concept of a soundless world.

Helen Keller once observed that blindness cuts people off from things, while deafness cuts people off from other people. The inability to communicate, she concluded, may result in depression or psychosis.

Enlightened hearing parents guard against this by immersing themselves in their children's worlds--learning sign language and encouraging them to explore deaf culture--while introducing their offspring to sports, education, the arts.

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