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

Maria didn't press Lourdes on the matter, she says, because as is the Mexican custom, when she heard that the other, elder grandmother had given advice, she demurred.

Following the baby's death, when Lourdes and Melissa moved in with her, Maria began to wonder if the little girl could have hurt the baby badly enough to cause her injuries. She says she asked Lourdes if Melissa had dropped the baby. "She never had a good answer to that question," Maria Arredondo says.

"I didn't want to hurt my daughter, and I didn't want to hurt my sister. I didn't want to take sides, but this thing needs to be cleaned up."

Caught in a swirl of conflicting emotions, Maria says she then gave this advice to Lourdes: "Be careful what you say, because you can get yourself or somebody else into trouble."

Faintly echoing through the empty beauty salon, some of Maria's observations seem like folk readings, like the interpretations of a naive and superstitious person or else someone who desperately wants to believe that a 4-year-old child, who wouldn't be charged with homicide, had caused Desiree's injury.

But when that fact is brought up--that one might suggest that Maria is making up stories to divert suspicions away from both her daughter and her sister--she protests vehemently. Her statements are fact, she says. Desiree's bruises showed up only after Lourdes and her daughter had moved in with the Larranagas; Maria personally saw Melissa endangering the baby by jumping on the bed and bouncing the infant; and bruises showed up after periods when Karla had left her baby with Lourdes and Melissa.

Even if investigators, after interviewing some of the people New Times interviewed, come to the same conclusion, there is no guarantee that Raul and Karla Larranaga will ever get their baby Sophia back.

"It's basically this," says Raul Larranaga's court-appointed attorney, Alan Shaw. "The child died while in the care of the parents. There were other people who were caring for the child before the parents came home, and if it was them, then the child shouldn't have been in their care. If they didn't kill the kid, they failed to protect it. That's [CPS'] whole line of reasoning."

"What I've heard from CPS, they're basing it on that somebody did it, and the parents had the baby last. Then they've gone off with this five-hour, six-hour bullshit that they've come up with here. I don't think that'll hold up in court."

One bright spot in a dim situation for the Larranagas: news that Tempe state Senator Gary Richardson had taken a personal interest in the case. He tells New Times he favors opening of CPS files to ensure greater accountability.

Barbara Hopkins, president of the Arizona Consortium for Children of Chronic Illness, has earned a reputation as an activist who fights to reunite families separated wrongly. She says the Larranaga case follows familiar lines, and betrays cultural biases at the core of what CPS does.

"They lay the responsibility back on the parents for not doing something about the situation," Hopkins says. "I think that if you look at the whole picture, Hispanics will invite family members into their house--family comes first. And when you do that, you disregard the problems that those family members might bring into the home. That's what you do when you're Hispanic, you help people."

She says that CPS unfairly holds parents to a white, middle-class ideal: parents who would immediately suspect child-care workers at the first sign of bruises and report it to a doctor or other authority.

That model devalues the actions of a mother like Karla Larranaga, who, like many working-class mothers, must rely on her extended family for child care and whose reaction to bruises is not to rush to a civil servant but simply to wonder, "Who could possibly hurt my baby?"

"I think the fact that they took the child in [to the doctor] was a very positive thing. If they wanted to hide something, they just could have waited for the bruises to disappear," Hopkins says.

"What bothers me more than anything else is what they do when they just whip a baby from a family. . . . Even if both of these parents didn't do it, for the rest of their lives, if they live here in Arizona . . . they could conceivably never have a child, because the state will keep taking them away."

CPS workers assigned to the case referred questions to the Department of Economic Security public information office, which did not respond to written inquiries.

The Larranagas had held out hope that CPS, after evaluating Raul's mother, Fulgencia Hanson, would give her temporary custody. But CPS officials tell Hanson that her lack of respect for authority would lead her to give Raul too much access to Sophia.

A trial for custody of Sophia appears inevitable; a pretrial hearing is scheduled for January.

"I've come to the conclusion that this is going to go hard and for a long time," says Raul Larranaga. "They're not planning on giving us back the baby soon."

"I feel like this is going to happen forever," Karla says. "I just want one person to believe us, just one person.

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