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:

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.

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.

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.

The fruits of such parental labors may be plentiful, such as the recent example of Heather Whitestone, the hearing-impaired Miss America whose story touched even those who scoff at beauty pageants.

But some parents give up when they learn their child is deaf, providing little more than sustenance and an occasional hug.

The milieu in which Benita Venegas grew up was far worse than that. Until recently, the strides she'd make were overwhelmed by the dangers she routinely had to face.

As a little girl, Benita says, she noted how people moved their lips as they communicated. The concept of sound hit her one day like a thunderbolt, and she realized she was different.

"It didn't kill me not to hear," Benita says. "What got me is when people would stare at me and make fun of me. Give me a break."

Benita's mother was a hotel maid whose relationship with the father of her two oldest children--Maria and Benita--ended when Benita was young. For a time, Amelia Fernandez and her daughters were forced to live out of cars and in friends' backyards. Some nights, Benita would cry herself to sleep on an empty stomach.

Food and lodging weren't Benita's only concerns. She says family friends sexually molested her as a child. Sadly, this experience is commonplace for deaf children. Studies show that deaf children are abused more often than hearing children, and the abusers are almost exclusively family members or friends.

(New Times tried unsuccessfully to contact Amelia Fernandez, who now resides near Sacramento with her two youngest children and oldest daughter, Maria.)

In the mid-1980s, Benita's mother hooked up with Tony Cebreros, and they had two daughters of their own together.

But Cebreros did not fill the paternal role Benita needed badly. He drank often and excessively, court records show, though his substance of choice was cocaine.

In September 1988, Amelia Fernandez ordered Cebreros out of their Phoenix home after a drunken brawl. Police reports show he grabbed Benita's sister, Maria, by the hair and threatened to kill the family with a kitchen knife.

Although Cebreros later pleaded guilty to a domestic-violence charge, Fernandez told a judge she intended to let him return home.

Less than a year later, Phoenix police arrested Cebreros on possession-of-cocaine charges. He pleaded guilty and, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records, was deported to his native Mexico in March 1990.

But Cebreros' departure didn't ease the tensions at home. When she was about 10, Benita says, she struck back at her mother for the first time.

"She would just hit me a lot for nothing," Benita recalls. "One day, I pushed her back into a wall and ran into the street. I didn't know what to do."

Benita was a wild child, but the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf became a refuge from turbulence. She had entered PDSD when she was about 3. She formally learned American Sign Language, mixing it with signs she'd devised on her own.

Her sister Maria--a hearing person--also took ASL lessons for a time to communicate better with Benita. But their mother learned only so-called "dog signs"--sit, eat, come.

Despite her mercurial nature, Benita has always been outgoing and likable. Several of her PDSD teachers took a special interest in the girl.

But away from school, Benita remained at the mercy of those around her.
In late 1990, she moved with her mother and sisters to the Manhassett Apartments, on North 32nd Street near East Indian School. The low-rent apartments house about 90 people, including many Mexican migrs.

Rafael Machuca, then 19, already was living there. The dark-haired deaf girl with the pretty face and shy smile caught his eye.

She was 12 at the time.

Benita Venegas quickly became infatuated with Rafael. She was thrilled that a nice-looking guy, a man, was interested in her instead of a hearing girl.

She taught Rafael a few signs, including the one for "I love you." She nicknamed him "Fy," a sound she could make.

Her mom warned her not to have sex with Rafael, Benita says, but did nothing to head off the relationship. To the contrary, she allowed Benita to go with Rafael on unsupervised "dates."

Benita had her first menstrual period shortly before her 13th birthday, which is in February. Soon after that, she and Rafael had sexual intercourse for the first time.

It wasn't a forcible rape, although it clearly was against the law. Rafael had groomed his target well, and Benita hardly resisted.

"I was just like a doggy, do what he wanted," Benita says. "We were on a playground and he pulled down my pants. I was wearing my favorite jeans. He'd been drinking. He did it to me like married people do, but I was a virgin and it hurt. I kept screaming, but nobody heard."

Later that day, she says, Rafael took her into a vacant building nearby. In sign language, she calls it "the bird house," because of how it looked to her. They again had intercourse.

"This time there was blood everywhere," she says. "I didn't tell my mother or anyone what happened. I kept it to myself."

Benita and Rafael had sex regularly after that. She says he'd use a condom now and then. Rafael later brought birth control pills back with him from a trip to Mexico, but they made her ill and she stopped taking them.

That July, she missed her period and began to experience morning sickness. Benita wouldn't admit to herself that she might be pregnant.

Finally, she told Maureen Gallucci, her former teacher and longtime confidante at school, how badly she was feeling. Gallucci took her to a clinic, where a pregnancy test came up positive.

Benita wrote about that day in her diary: "Doctor talk to Maureen. Yes, Benita pregnant. Maureen told me. I was shocked. Cry. Then Maureen and I went to eat. Talk about my being pregnant. My mom was sad and cry. Then Maureen leave."

Gallucci and someone from the clinic separately called CPS, which contacted Phoenix police on August 31, 1991.

Police reports say CPS caseworker Margaret Lothian told Officer Raul Bustamante she couldn't interview Benita because she didn't know sign language. Neither did Bustamante.

Nonetheless, the pair met at the Manhassett Apartments to sort out what they could about the pregnant, deaf girl.

CPS' Lothian interviewed Benita's mother and older sister. When it was over, she informed Officer Bustamante she wasn't going to put Benita into foster care.

Instead, Margaret Lothian instructed Benita, through her sister, to avoid Rafael. It's not certain if the caseworker knew the sister was dating another Machuca brother at the time.

The authorities left Benita to fend for herself.
"Everyone was telling me not to say who the dad was," she recalls, "because Rafael would go to jail. I was scared. I didn't know what to think."

Five days after the first interviews, Phoenix police detective Jack Martin and two CPS caseworkers went to interview Benita at PDSD. The caseworkers spoke with her first, as a school counselor interpreted and the detective waited outside.

Benita admitted she'd been having sex with Rafael, and that he'd been hitting her during during their frequent arguments.

Detective Martin then introduced himself to the girl. He told Benita he was concerned someone "might be doing things to her against her will" and he needed to know the truth.

Benita replied fiercely that she liked having sex with Rafael and no one had forced her to do anything.

Her attitude should not have shocked anyone. The insularity of the deaf world makes it difficult for victims to come forward in the best of circumstances. This was not the best of circumstances, for Benita or the police.

For better or worse, Rafael had become a constant in her life. She hated his temper, his drinking, his drug use. But, in a way, she felt safer with him than she did with her mother.

Martin's short interview with Benita went badly. He ended it by saying Rafael would go to jail if the two continued to have sex.

Two days later, Martin looked for Rafael at the Manhassett Apartments. He wasn't home, so the detective left his card. His police report concluded: "Bonita's [sic] mother does not speak English, so I did not contact her."

Days passed, and Martin again returned to the apartments. The detective spoke with an apartment manager, who said he knew Rafael had been molesting a 13-year-old girl.

"Most of the people in the complex were already aware of it, as well," Martin's report said. But Rafael had fled to Mexico after hearing that the police were looking for him, the manager told the detective.

Rafael Machuca needn't have been so concerned. On September 10, 1991, Martin dropped his investigation. "It would be impossible to prosecute this case at the present time," he wrote, "because the victim is a hostile witness and refuses to testify. . ."

Martin's supervisor, Lieutenant Al Thiele, doesn't fault his detective's conclusion, and quickly passes the buck to CPS for not having pulled Benita out of the house sooner.

"This may sound callous," Thiele says, "but no one in our unit tends to get very excited about a 13-year-old going with a 20-year-old. It's wrong, of course, but our experience is that juries don't convict on those facts. But why that girl was allowed to stay with that mother is another issue."

Thiele says Martin's report should have been forwarded to CPS and to the County Attorney's Office. But prosecutors say they never got it. This glitch would become important in light of what was to come.

Rafael Machuca spent a few months in Mexico before he returned to Phoenix. He and the pregnant Benita resumed where they'd left off, staying together most nights at her mother's two-bedroom apartment. In return, Benita says, Rafael--a cook at an Italian restaurant--helped out with money.

But the relationship between the prospective parents was souring, Benita says, and had become increasingly violent.

"I was black and blue on my arms from where he hit me," Benita says. "I wore long sleeves at school. My teacher asked me what was going on. I said it had been my sister doing it."

On February 23, 1992, Benita gave birth one month prematurely to a healthy, five-pound, 13-ounce baby boy. In the delivery room were her sister Maria and teacher Maureen Gallucci, who interpreted the doctor's instructions for Benita in sign language.

Benita wanted to name her son David, but Rafael had insisted that a boy be named after him. Again, she acceded to his wishes.

Benita Venegas was very proud of her new son, though she had little idea how to care for him. She returned to school after Ralfy was born, leaving the baby with her mother, neighbors and other family members.

Benita and Rafael were the talk of the Manhassett Apartments grapevine. Some believed Rafael to be a child molester who deserved to be locked up. Others saw Benita Venegas as a deaf Lolita. But everyone agreed Benita's mother had let things get out of control.

"We thought the mother should be shot," says Miguel Lopez, who was living there with his daughter at the time. "This punk was strutting around like a stud, 'cuz he'd gotten into the pants of a little deaf girl. Then the older brother came along."

The older brother was Javier Machuca, who had turned 30 in June 1992. Benita long had known Javier was attracted to her. He'd tried drunkenly to kiss her a time or two, though she'd rebuffed his advances. After Rafael again left for Mexico, Javier made his move.

Their sexual relationship may have been hastened by something Benita says happened to her that July. She was walking alone in a park near her home, Benita says, when a man grabbed and raped her.

Benita told a PDSD school counselor she thought she knew the man's first name and where he lived. CPS and the Phoenix police were called in to investigate.

But detectives put little stock in Benita's allegations, especially after they reviewed the failed 1991 case. Police reports show the rape investigation ended before police interviewed either the suspect or the alleged victim.

Javier Machuca consoled Benita, she says, saying he wanted to protect her. They began to spend lots of time together, with her mother's blessing.

Soon, the 30-year-old man and the 14-year-old girl began to have sex.
On February 19, 1993, the Phoenix police were called yet again to the Manhassett Apartments. Apartment manager Maria Lourdes Hernandez told them Benita had a fresh welt on her shoulder, where Javier Machuca allegedly had whacked her with a plastic bat.

But there was a deeper motivation for Hernandez's call.
"What can you do when you see problems?" says Hernandez, who has managed the apartments since May 1992. "I did what I thought was best. These Machuca guys took advantage of her. They washed her brain and the mother let them. It was crazy."

Lacking an interpreter, a Phoenix street cop jotted down a few questions for Benita to answer. She again refused to cooperate, saying only she wanted Javier to leave her alone.

Phoenix sex-crimes detective Arthur Smith was assigned that day to investigate. Three weeks later, he interviewed Benita at PDSD.

In Benita's mind, the police were an enemy not to be trusted. Things always seemed to get worse when they came around, and everyone blamed her.

Benita told the cop through a school counselor that she'd been a willing partner in the sexual relationship with Javier. Getting hit by the plastic bat had been no big deal, she added.

Smith then interviewed Javier Machuca at the police station. A talkative sort, Javier said Benita had given birth to his brother's child. He'd felt compelled to look after the girl in Rafael's absence. Somehow, he explained, that had evolved into a sexual relationship. Javier tearfully blamed the girl for seducing him.

"Javier told me he would be drinking and he would let her convince him," Smith's report said. "He told me he would argue with her after they had sex, telling her it was wrong."

Despite Javier's admission, the detective let him go after the interview. His reasoning: "Benita has consented to the sexual relationship, and because of her display of uncooperativeness."

Following procedure, Smith sent a report--albeit halfhearted--on Javier Machuca to the County Attorney's office for consideration as a sex-abuse filing. The report went to the desk of senior prosecutor Vince Imbordino. He turned it down a few weeks later.

"It's not unusual to get this type of case and not be able to go with it," says Imbordino. "I'm looking at a girl who has had consensual sex. . . . Even with the suspect's admissions, she was unwilling to provide enough information as to when the acts occurred. It was apparent she had told as much as she was going to tell."

Specificity would always be a problem with Benita, who's not good at remembering or recording dates or times. But authorities can't blame everything on the girl.

Vince Imbordino says he's certain he never saw or heard about the August 1991 police report involving Benita Venegas and Rafael Machuca.

"I wish I had known about it," he says. "If I had had that report, I'm convinced I would have tried to clarify some things. It would have raised questions about just what was going on with this girl."

Imbordino also says he's unsure that meeting with Benita last year would have convinced him to prosecute Javier Machuca: "The girl you're talking to now is probably much different than the girl back then. I'm not sure whether it would have done any good."

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.

This was new territory for Benita.
"I like to have fun and smile," she says. "But I have to work, too. That's okay. They don't hurt me or my son. They really like me, except when I'm a brat."

As trust grew, Benita began to open up to Ellen White. The Whites knew the basics of Benita's story--her horrific family life, the pregnancy at 13--but there was much more.

The details revolted the couple. Ellen White decided to find out why no one had been brought to justice for abusing Benita.

In her quest, White enjoyed an advantage over the average citizen: She often interprets for the courts and for police, so she's familiar with the criminal-justice system. That, combined with her stubborn streak, made for a potent package.

In April, White left a note about Benita for veteran Phoenix sex-crimes detective Lou Marotta, a longtime acquaintance whom she respected. White's message had a sense of urgency: Rafael Machuca had contacted Benita's latest CPS caseworker, Mary Roberts, and planned to seek legal custody of Ralfy.

Marotta's report details how he called CPS' Roberts, who confirmed that her agency had received a slew of complaints about the Machucas and Benita's mother.

Marotta told Roberts he couldn't tell from reading prior police reports whether Rafael Machuca actually was Ralfy's father. The caseworker informed him that Rafael had volunteered to submit to testing to prove his paternity.

Let me know what the test shows, Marotta told Roberts. The test showed that Rafael Machuca was Ralfy's father.

Roberts mailed the results to Marotta on May 31, but heard nothing from the detective for two weeks. With Ellen White hounding her almost daily, Roberts finally called the police to get a status report.

On June 15, Roberts got return calls from two detectives. One call came from detective Art Smith, who had investigated the rejected 1993 case involving Javier Machuca. He did not remember Benita with fondness and summarily dismissed the updated allegations.

"I recognized the name Bonita Vanegas [sic] from a prior contact with her," Smith's police report says. "I told Mary [Roberts] of Bonita's promiscuous behavior, and advised her at this time there is nothing we can do."

Lou Marotta also called Mary Roberts that day. The detective said he'd received copies of about 20 complaints to CPS concerning Benita's welfare, but hadn't seen the paternity test results.

The missing letter from Roberts turned up days later--it remains uncertain why it was delayed--at which time Marotta informed Mary Roberts he'd reopen the case.

But another month went by without any investigation. Ellen White kept pushing. Finally, on July 12, Marotta interviewed Benita.

Through an ASL interpreter--not White--Benita recounted her history with Rafael and Javier Machuca--the seductions, the "bird house," the pregnancy. The interview was far from perfect. Benita still couldn't recall dates, and it was clear she was holding some things back.

But Ellen White knew from experience that problems such as these crop up frequently in sex-abuse cases involving juveniles. She began to believe the Machucas finally would be brought to justice.

Nevertheless, the case against the Machucas again stalled after the July 12 interview.

In early August, Cindy Nannetti, a prosecutor who supervises the sex-crimes unit, learned New Times was preparing a story about Benita. It was the first time Nannetti had heard of the girl or the case.

After doing some homework, Nannetti contacted Lou Marotta and asked him to put Benita's case on the front burner. The detective complied.

On August 17, Phoenix police arrested Javier and Rafael Machuca on charges of sexually abusing Benita. The brothers told Marotta they couldn't understand why they'd been arrested. Benita's mother had allowed them to sleep with the girl at her apartment, they explained, and Benita hadn't complained.

In his interview, Rafael added that he'd been eager to take responsibility for his son, as his voluntary paternity testing proved.

Police booked the brothers into the Maricopa County Jail, where they remain, awaiting trial.

By most accounts, Benita Venegas has made remarkable progress in her nine months as the Whites' foster child. Her recent appearance before Commissioner Roy Waddell was markedly different than an earlier one at which she threw a tantrum.

Those present say Waddell told Benita she should be proud of how well she's doing. Her case was one of the worst he's ever heard, Waddell reportedly said, and he praised the Whites for their foster parenting.

"The foster parents provided a new and far better kind of atmosphere for the girl," agrees Phoenix police lieutenant Al Thiele. "She obviously feels safer and freer to talk to us. It was a stroke of luck for her and for us."

But real-life cases such as Benita's rarely have Hollywood endings. She's been suspended from school once this year after a vicious fight with another girl. She suffers dramatic mood swings, and fears the retaliation of the Machucas for having come forward.

Life for Benita Venegas, it seems, is destined to be a struggle.
Ellen White wonders what will become of her foster daughter.
"She'll just be 26 and her son will be going into his teens," White says, shaking her head at the thought of it. "I hope she has learned a skill and found a guy who can find it in his heart to be good to her. That's about the best thing to hope for."

Meanwhile, Benita is preparing a speech she plans to deliver October 15 during a debate program at ASU. She gives a preview of the speech, which will express strong opinions formed from her personal experience.

"Parents should learn not to abuse their children," Benita says. "CPS should learn how to get off their ass and see who is being abused. The police should learn how to talk right to the deaf. Kids shouldn't be afraid of telling the truth."

But like most teenage girls, Benita Venegas would prefer to dwell on the matters of the heart.

"I want to date boys my own age," she says, pounding that fist into her chest again. "I know it's hard to find a good man. But I'm still a kid and I don't know how to.

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