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.

But why would someone in Benita Venegas' shoes have been less than hostile? And don't such cases demand that authorities go the extra yard?

Imbordino, who has a reputation for being especially supportive of crime victims, ponders the questions for a moment, then replies: "There are legitimate questions about why Benita was in that environment for so long. The sad fact is that police just don't have that much time to develop cases. We make decisions based on what we have at the time."

On April 9, 1993, the County Attorney's Office sent a letter to Benita's mother informing her of Imbordino's decision not to prosecute. The letter employed boilerplate language--"No reasonable likelihood of conviction"--in explaining its reasoning.

The letter informed Amelia Fernandez that she had the right to speak with prosecutors before the case was officially dropped. She never did.

During a three-year period, records show Child Protective Services received at least 27 calls concerning Benita Venegas' welfare from schoolteachers, neighbors and others. The callers had the same message: Benita was being neglected by her mother and sexually abused by the Machucas.

But it should come as no surprise that the agency took so long to put Benita and Ralfy into foster care.

It happened because CPS operates under a policy of "family preservation," normally keeping children with their natural parents in all but the rarest instances ("Suffer the Little Children," May 11, 1994).

In March 1993, CPS finally placed Benita and 1-year-old Ralfy into foster care. Within days, Amelia Fernandez left for California with her two youngest daughters, to be joined later by oldest daughter Maria and her two children. (CPS won't comment on why it would remove one child from a mother and not the other two juveniles.)

In a just world, being safe from the Machucas and her mother would have meant a better life for Benita and her son. But the next year would be a different sort of hell for the girl.

Benita lived in two foster homes and one group home during that time. She was the only deaf person at the homes, which left her more isolated and angry than ever.

For months, Benita and Ralfy lived with four other teenage mothers and their young children at a north Phoenix group home. She was miserable there, lonely and ostracized.

"I was mad all the time," Benita says, which translated into fights with other students at school for any perceived slight. An appearance before a juvenile court commissioner was memorable for her emotional outburst.

She was a depressed 15-year-old with suicide on her mind.
"I was thinking, 'Why should you live? Someone better will take care of your son. You're a bad person,'" Benita says, completing her thought with the sign for sadness, one hand quickly down the side of the face.

By last fall, Rafael Machuca properly had assumed authorities weren't interested in him anymore. Emboldened, he asked CPS to let him visit Benita and Ralfy. Remarkably, the agency consented.

The visit did not go well, Benita says.
"He told me what a stupid bitch I am and a bad mother," Benita says, "and I told him he's an asshole, a bad man. I hated him."

During her stay at the group home, CPS contacted the Valley Center of the Deaf to find a professional interpreter to spend time with the girl.

The center called Ellen White. Good signers are marvelous storytellers who seem to create pictures as they interpret. Many familiar with White's work put her in that category. An only child of two deaf parents, she is deeply concerned with issues affecting the hearing-impaired.

White agreed to meet with Benita at the group home. It was the start of the most positive relationship in the girl's lamentable life. Benita was a tough one, White says, badly wounded and striking out at everyone around her. But White saw something more in the girl.

"She'd be telling me how she hated my guts and everyone else's guts," White recalls, "but how could she feel any different? I only knew a little bit of her story at the time, and it made me sick."

After several visits, Benita let Ellen White hug her for the first time. Ellen and her husband, Larry, began to contemplate becoming Benita's foster parents.

"This was a person--two people, really--in need," White says matter-of-factly. "We just happened to find out about it, and we just had to help."

The Whites took Benita and Ralfy home this past January, after successfully jumping through a myriad of foster-care hoops. The couple are not wealthy, but their airy Paradise Valley home seemed like a palace to Benita.

The Whites began to try to instill a sense of responsibility in Benita. The couple, who had reared three children of their own, were firm yet patient.

But Benita and Ralfy presented unique challenges: She was a troubled and educationally deficient teenager who happened to be deaf. They also had to try to teach this girl--a child herself, really--how to raise a baby.

As the weeks passed, Benita grudgingly began to catch on to the Whites' program. It means chores around the house, and accountability when you promise to do something but you don't. It also means lots of hugs and support.

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