Maggie did make sporadic efforts to pull herself together. As one of the scant 10 percent of drug-addicted parents in Arizona afforded in-patient drug treatment, she bunked for weeks (on the government's dime) at a residential-treatment program that provides addiction counseling to low-income Valley women.

But she left the program early. Afterward, she declined to take most of the drug tests ordered by CPS and flunked the ones she did take.

She disappeared for weeks, not communicating with her children, with whom she had kept in supervised contact after CPS took custody.

Megan and Jenna had continued to bond with their foster parents, which made them two of the lucky ones. About 2,000 children in Arizona await adoption at any given time, and certainly not all of them are in such positive situations.

About two years after the fatal fire, CPS changed its case plan from family reunification to termination of Maggie's parental rights and adoption.

More time passed.

Judge Reinstein heard testimony at a trial, during which he had to find by a "preponderance" of evidence (a mere 51 percent) that severing Maggie's rights was appropriate.

He ruled that it was.

But his decision still did not immediately allow for Megan and Jenna's adoption.

"This case is taking WAY TOO LONG long!" Reinstein wrote to himself during the process.

Maggie appealed the judge's ruling, and the Arizona Court of Appeals took more than a year to affirm it.

Soon afterward, Reinstein scheduled an expedited hearing at which to sign the adoption papers.

He let the girls' adoptive parents know they were free to take photos and celebrate in court after the business at hand was completed.

They took him up on it.

After tears were shed and platitudes traded, Reinstein invited the girls to switch places with him on the bench.

The sisters jumped at his offer.

At that moment, a happier scene could not be found in any courtroom in America.

After spending months in Judge Reinstein's courtroom observing dozens of dependency cases, New Times can say:

• CPS and state assistant attorneys general who represent the agency go to extremes at times — both allowing children to remain in potentially dangerous homes and taking away other children whose homes might be made safe with proper help.

• Mothers and fathers usually have to screw up royally to lose their rights to parent their children. "CPS generally gives parents every opportunity to fail — a whole lot of chances — before asking us to sever their rights," Judge Reinstein says.

• The majority of courtroom advocates — who include CPS caseworkers, attorneys for the state and for the child, and guardians ad litem — work to do what they consider the right thing. However, as Reinstein says, "There's always that minority that just go through the motions, with the end result being that kids are hurt in any number of ways."

• Dependency judges enjoy greater freedom than most judges — Reinstein calls it "wiggle room" — to craft rulings that may best benefit a child, even if the rulings may not comport to the letter of the law. To him, "listening to children, especially the older kids, is just about the most important thing, and then you go from there."

Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, is adamant that too many children in foster care could be allowed to stay with their parents, if only child-welfare authorities were on the right track.

To Wexler, Arizona has one of the nation's worst CPS systems.

"We have encountered no state more convinced that it has nothing to learn from anyplace else than Arizona," the ex-journalist wrote a few years ago.

In a 2007 analysis titled "Perennial Panic: Why Child Welfare in Arizona Never Gets Better," Wexler wrote, "The Arizona child-welfare system is a wonderful deal for everybody — but the children. It is a system fueled by self-indulgence and self-delusion."

Of all Arizona state agencies, CPS (which is part of the Department of Economic Security) is easily the most controversial, and has been for a generation.

The reasons are as transparent as an expression on a child's face: CPS is supposed to protect kids by investigating abuse and neglect allegations, to "promote the well-being of a child in a permanent home," and to coordinate services to "strengthen" families.

But it is a mission easier said than done, under the best of circumstances. Surely, Arizona never has been home to the best of circumstances in its child-welfare practices.

In part, that is because unofficial CPS policy is always to protect the agency first. For as long as it has been around, CPS has subscribed to the maxim that no news is good news.

When horror stories inevitably hit the press, the agency often responds to negative political and public pressures by making knee-jerk, sometimes-dramatic policy changes.

Before 1980, for example, CPS agencies around the nation grabbed some children from their parents simply because the families were poor.

That year, a federal law sought to shrink the number of kids in foster care, which led agencies to remove fewer children from troubled homes.

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