The Once and Future Mom

CPS slammed for severing parental rights while doing little to preserve the family

Mary C.'s husband bought her a computer for Mother's Day. She's interested in the Internet, but for now she'll get her feet wet by playing solitaire.

Mary would like to show her 8-year-old daughter, Hope, how to use the machine someday, if Arizona child-welfare authorities would only let her.

Mary is living these days in a comfortable Phoenix home with Harold, whom she married 17 months ago. It rarely has been this good, this safe for Mary, a diminutive 47-year-old. Her face, lined and world-weary, tells of an exceedingly difficult life.

Some lowlights: Daughter of alcoholics whose father beat her often. Lived in a group home from the ages of 10 to 14. Raped at 16 by a family acquaintance. Married at 18 to another physically abusive man. Gave up her first-born to adoption--she says she did so to free the girl, then 6, from the violent surroundings in which Mary felt trapped. Left to fend for herself in 1990 after Hope and older daughter Jessica's father died, six weeks after Hope's birth.

Mary fetches a school photograph of Hope from a living-room mantle. Taken a few years ago, it depicts a pretty little blond girl with a toothy smile. She also shows off a homecoming dance photo of Jessica, now almost 18.

Mary hasn't seen either daughter in person since February 24, 1998, during an emotional meeting at a Phoenix social-service agency. That meeting occurred as the state was taking final steps to sever Mary's parental rights to Hope.

It's a mother's worst fear.
Arizona's Child Protective Services (CPS) agency had taken the girls--then 4 and 13--in May 1995. It happened days after Phoenix police responded to complaints that Mary, then a single mother, had been neglecting them.

Police reports say Hope had been wandering unattended around an apartment complex on West McDowell Road, while Jessica was selling candy door-to-door. The landlord let the police into Mary's apartment, a disaster zone.

A police report said several white rats--apparently the "docile" kind available at pet stores--were out of their cages and moving about the filthy abode. The report added, however, that "both girls were very clean and in good health."

Officers spoke with Mary after she returned from playing bingo that evening. She denied neglecting the children and refused to admit that her apartment, from which she was about to be evicted, was a mess.

An officer returned to the apartment a few days later, after which he wrote, "There was nothing noted that would pose an immediate health or safety risk. The children appeared healthy, clean, well-nourished and happy . . ."

The officers notified CPS of their visits, but the state agency didn't respond for a few weeks. In the meantime, police learned Mary had outstanding warrants on two shoplifting charges for which she hadn't appeared in court.

CPS finally got involved. Its investigation showed Jessica hadn't been to school for months. Agency files also contained substantiated 1993 allegations that Mary had left her children unattended for hours at a time.

Authorities placed the girls in emergency shelters, as Mary served five days in the county jail on the shoplifting charges. After her release, Mary relied on the kindness of friends for lodging.

Mary hadn't physically abused her daughters. And, despite allegations from a key CPS witness at the spring 1998 trial to determine if she'd permanently lose custody of Hope, no evidence has linked Mary to substance abuse. (Most neglect cases involve parental drug or alcohol problems.)

CPS originally planned to return Mary's daughters to her if she successfully completed several tasks. They included finding a job, finding an adequate residence and taking "parenting classes."

Though Mary did all of the above, CPS decided in November 1996 to get a judge's permission to sever Hope from Mary, and see that Hope was adopted by a worthy family.

CPS made its decision after a psychologist under contract with the agency said Mary was suffering from a mood disorder called dysthymia. The chronic malady causes her to become depressed, suffer insomnia, have low self-esteem, become indecisive and feel hopeless.

That psychologist recommended that Mary ask a mental-health agency to provide treatment. That agency--then called ComCare--agreed that Mary was seriously mentally ill, which qualified her for free, if limited, psychiatric services.

No one claims Mary was a model mother before CPS took her daughters. But even the state's attorney who sought to strip Mary's children from her permanently said during her trial:

"This isn't a case about a person who is a bad person or an evil person or a mean person. Unfortunately, this is a case where an individual suffers from a personality disorder. . . . In spite of Mary's efforts, and in spite of what she perceives to be best for her children, she is unable to adequately parent her children. . . . There is no real hope for her."

Judge Kenneth Fields agreed with CPS in an April 1998 ruling, severing Mary C.'s parental rights.

But CPS botched Mary's case badly, according to a stunning January 19, 1999, Arizona Court of Appeals ruling that reversed Judge Fields' decision.

The appellate court said the state had done a dreadful job of fulfilling its duty to give Mary a proper opportunity to get her children back.

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