Taken Baby Syndrome

Raul and Karla Larranaga's baby Desiree died under mysterious circumstances a year ago. Now Child Protective Services has taken their newborn daughter, Sophia, away from them. But witnesses who neither the police nor CPS interviewed tell New Times they su

The friendly fat woman who brings their baby to them for a few hours each week is regaling Raul and Karla Larranaga with stories from her career saving neglected children: Kids with cigarette burns on their arms; two children left in a park on a hot day with a note from their mother explaining that she couldn't care for them anymore; an abandoned 1-year-old with gonorrhea.

The woman's work for Child Protective Services has involved her in some of the state's most notorious cases. She tells the Larranagas with a smile that she's often been caught by television cameras during coverage of one abandoned baby or another. "Oh, yeah, I'm in the headlines," she says.

The Larranagas struggle to pay attention. The couple is allowed to see their 1-month-old daughter, Sophia, for only four hours each week, ever since a CPS official showed up at Phoenix Children's Hospital, when Sophia was only two days old, to whisk her away.

Raul tries to smile at the caseworker's stories, but he can't take his eyes off Karla, who feeds the baby from a bottle. While the woman talks, they pass Sophia back and forth, trying to get enough contact in one hour to last them three days, which will be the next time they see their daughter.

Raul politely asks the woman to tell them more about CPS. Has she known of parents who were wrongly accused of hurting their children?

In fact, the caseworker tells them, before she went to work for CPS she herself had been investigated by the agency on bogus charges made by her ex-husband; she convinced him to recant.

Karla suddenly pulls the bottle out of Sophia's mouth and frowns at it. "What is it?" Raul asks as she opens the bottle and fishes something out with her finger.

It's a dead fly.
Karla asks the caseworker--who had brought the bottle--how it was prepared.
The caseworker shrugs and says that bugs sometimes get into powdered milk.
"She's a little young for protein yet," the caseworker jokes.

Raul takes the baby as Karla goes to the kitchen to replace the bottle. Sophia's eyes widen as she stares into her father's face. He widens his in return.

Too soon, the hour is over, and the caseworker pushes herself up from the Larranagas' sofa with some effort. She reminds them that she'll be bringing a trainee with her on Friday, and tells them not to ask her so many questions about CPS in front of her co-worker.

They promise not to.

Two weeks earlier, Raul and Karla Larranaga had listened in a courtroom while another CPS caseworker told a judge why the agency believes Raul and Karla are murderers.

Early on the morning of November 13, 1995, the Larranagas had called 911 to report that their first child, 3-month-old Desiree, had stopped breathing.

The child was flown by helicopter to Phoenix Children's Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with irreversible brain damage. After several hours, doctors pronounced Desiree brain dead and removed her from a respirator. The county medical examiner proclaimed the child's death a homicide consistent with "shaken baby syndrome."

To this day, however, Mesa police, who investigated the death, haven't charged anyone with the crime, since several adults had contact with Desiree in her final days. A detective admitted to Raul that he found it hard to believe that either he or Karla would be capable of hurting the child, but he has to consider them suspects simply because they were the last people in contact with Desiree.

If the Mesa police are unsure who caused Desiree Larranaga's death, however, CPS caseworker Lori Adams seems to have no doubts. Whatever hopes of reuniting with Sophia the Larranagas carry into juvenile court disappear as Adams lays out the agency's accusations:

* Two weeks before Desiree's death, the Larranagas had taken Desiree to a pediatrician to ask him about bruises which had shown up on the back of her legs.

* X-rays of Desiree's corpse showed a healing fracture on one of her shins.
* At the hospital on the morning of her death, Desiree had what looked like second-degree burns on her cheeks and under her chin.

* And, most important, Raul and Karla were alone with the child in her final five to six hours, when CPS believes the brain injury occurred.

Raul and Karla Larranaga, Adams is saying, had abused their child, shaken it fatally, and finally burned her face.

Raul's court-appointed attorney, Alan Shaw, points out that the medical examiner had not specified the time the head injury had occurred, but then Shaw cuts his objection short--it's become obvious, he says later, that CPS has no intention of reuniting the Larranagas short of an actual trial.

Devastated, Karla leaves the hearing in tears and has to be taken out of the building on the arm of a relative.

Raul stays behind, calmly discussing his situation with Shaw. One good piece of news has come out of the proceedings: CPS has agreed to evaluate Raul's parents. In only a matter of weeks, the Larranagas are told, temporary custody of Sophia may be granted to Raul's mother and stepfather. The Larranagas would still have limited access to their child, but at least the baby will be back in the family.

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