Suffer the Children

Governor Napolitano made CPS reform a top priority. But it's been a tough four years

Then Scoins found out she was pregnant again. Very, very pregnant.

She'd gained weight with her previous pregnancy, so she was already heavier than usual. She complained to her doctors about nausea, and irregular periods, but records show that she assumed it was a side effect from the meds.

So in early September 2003, Scoins found out she was pregnant, and on September 27 her little boy was born — two months early, weighing only three and a half pounds.

CPS Administrator Janice Mickens says she's most excited about a new program to help families early — before crisis hits.
Martha Strachan
CPS Administrator Janice Mickens says she's most excited about a new program to help families early — before crisis hits.
Brad Astrowsky says Angela Monroy was "in over her head."
Martha Strachan
Brad Astrowsky says Angela Monroy was "in over her head."

And that's when Scoins, who insists she'd never used illegal drugs, tested positive for amphetamines.

Even the hospital's own test results warn that antidepressants, like the ones Scoins was using, can create a "false positive" for amphetamines. So can cold medicine, which she'd also been on.

Not only did the baby test negative for everything, but Scoins subsequently passed two more drug tests.

No matter. When Scoins' boy (called C.Q. in court papers to protect his privacy) was big enough to leave the hospital in November, Scoins didn't get a call to pick him up. Instead, a CPS worker left her a note.

CPS had taken the baby.

The reason: According to the caseworker, Scoins had "tested positive for methamphetamines."

Amphetamines are present in any number of drugs, not just crystal meth. But while CPS caseworkers deal with thousands of meth-related cases in the course of a year, the staffer on Scoins' case didn't seem to realize that. Nor did she acknowledge that Scoins' amphetamine "positive" was in dispute.

Instead, CPS's report claimed that Scoins was a drug addict. The caseworker wrote that she'd "abused substances for a long period of time" — an absurd claim for which the worker offered no supporting documentation. The report also claimed that Scoins had been homeless and living in a car. Again, completely false.

Even worse, in the same report, the caseworker claimed that Scoins' baby had yet to be tested for drugs.

That wasn't true. C.Q.'s tests were complete within days of his birth, two months before. He was negative for all drugs.

Taking C.Q. amounted to a rush to judgment that may have been triggered by good intentions — but doesn't hold up to scrutiny today.

Scoins was devastated at losing her baby.

"I was just a mess," Scoins says. "I kept thinking, there's some mistake. I've never used drugs; they must have me confused with someone else. When they find out, this will all be over. But that never happened."

Instead, CPS only let Scoins see C.Q. during supervised visits. And Scoins' caseworker filed paperwork to take away her other three children, too.

Ultimately, the agency dropped its threat; when C.Q. was nine months old, CPS finally returned him to his mother. But that was only thanks to an attorney friend who handled Scoins' case for free.

"I probably would not have my son back today without that," she says.

Throughout a three-hour interview with New Timesat the public library in Surprise, Scoins' two youngest boys interrupt frequently to show their mother books, pester for her library card, and ask for help with the computer. They have a warm rapport; Scoins is affectionate with them, and they clearly adore her in return.

Since her battle for C.Q., Scoins founded the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute and devotes much of her time to helping families across the state fighting CPS. She doesn't get paid, yet she estimates she easily spends more than 60 hours a week taking their calls, helping them with paperwork, even showing up in court to offer an assist.

She knows the dark side of Napolitano's push for safety first. She's lived it.

"This wasn't even a case where they took the kid and asked questions later," says her attorney, Ambrose, disgusted. "In this case, they didn't even ask questions."


As a matter of policy, CPS officials cannot discuss individual cases, except in cases of child death. But its administrator, Janice Mickens, says the agency had no choice but to increase removals at the beginning of Napolitano's tenure.

Prior to that, CPS used to farm out less-serious complaints to a network of community and volunteer agencies — about 6,000 calls a year.

Napolitano decreed that CPS would investigate every complaint it received. And Mickens says the increased investigations account for the rise in removals.

But while even critics of the agency applaud the "every complaint" policy, they question why so many kids had to be moved into foster care rather than monitored in-home.

That was clearly Napolitano's wish; she gave a speech in April 2003 where she stated plainly, "We cannot both assure the child's safety and guarantee to keep the family home. We must choose."

The problem with that logic? Well, when it comes to children and safety, there's rarely 100 percent assurance for anything.

Many homes aren't safe. But every year, kids die in foster care, too. And sometimes, a home that seems perfectly safe is the one that proves deadly.

Wayne Holder is the Albuquerque-based director of ACTION for Child Protection, which offers technical assistance to child welfare agencies. He believes that thinking like Napolitano's is old-fashioned. People used to think "safety" and "family" were contrary goals, he says. Not anymore.

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