Fostering Sexual Abuse
Editor's note: The names of child sex-abuse victims, their relatives, the state-licensed foster parents and the actual perpetrators have been changed to protect the victims, who still reside in Arizona and are still minors. All others in this story have been accurately identified.
Stephanie and Brittany Jackson
As they walked toward the run-down East Valley tract home, Joy and Brian Jackson warmed to the two little strangers who burst out of the front door, shrieking: "Mommy! Daddy!"
The Jacksons knew right away on that day in November 1990 that they would adopt Stephanie, then 6, and her 4-year-old sister, Brittany. The Jacksons figured all the grief the state Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) adoption caseworkers had put them through had been worth it.
Both Phoenix-area professionals with advanced college degrees, the Jacksons decided to adopt after they learned they couldn't have children of their own. They had willingly submitted to the state's pre-adoption process--had undergone numerous, sometimes hostile interviews, had taken parenting classes, had even turned over tax statements to prove they weren't lying about their considerable income. At the end of the process, the Jacksons wondered if the state would ever let them adopt a child.
Then the Jacksons were told by DES that they had qualified to adopt what were touted as the "best children" in the system--Stephanie and Brittany. They were told the little girls had been removed from their alcoholic, neglectful birth mother nearly three years before, only to be happily and successfully placed in the warm and loving Jones foster home, one of the finest homes in the state foster-care system.
Throughout that November, the Jacksons visited the children every day at the Jones foster home as part of the pre-adoption, getting-to-know-you process. They became troubled because Lucy Jones, the foster mother, was frequently absent and the children were left in the care of the foster mother's natural son, 16-year-old Hubert Jones.
The Jacksons felt uncomfortable when Hubert often excused himself during their visits, whisking little Brittany into the bathroom "to do her hair" for a half-hour at a time. And they didn't like the girls' "room," a section of the Jones carport that had been partitioned off with plywood, a roach-infested space furnished only with dirty bunk beds. It seemed strange to the Jacksons that the little girls had no toys, watched only Cartoon Network and could not yet identify letters or numbers.
Fearing that if they complained they would not be allowed to adopt Stephanie and Brittany, the Jacksons did not voice their concerns with the girls' caseworker from Child Protective Services--the subagency of DES that is charged with placing and watching over thousands of children in state-licensed foster homes.
Then, as today, children were removed from their biological parents and placed in foster care if caseworkers believed the children had been abused or neglected. CPS then placed the children in state-licensed foster facilities--group homes or private residences of foster parents paid by the state to care for the children. There was a shortage of foster homes in large part because the state was unwilling to fully reimburse foster parents for housing children. The only way to turn a meager profit as a foster parent was to take in as many children as possible. Lucy Jones often housed five or six foster children at a time.
It was only after Stephanie and Brittany had moved into the Jacksons' home that they told their adoptive parents that Hubert often "played husband" on them while "Mama Lucy," their foster mother, was off doing errands.
The Jacksons immediately told CPS that they believed the girls had been sexually abused while in the state-licensed Jones foster home.
Hubert confessed to Mesa police on January 7, 1991. He admitted making the younger girl, Brittany, engage in oral sex in the bathroom, admitted sexually abusing the naked preschooler while watching The Price Is Right in the living room in the presence of Stephanie, admitted thrusting his finger into the 4-year-old's vagina. Hubert couldn't explain to police why he did it. He promised police he would get counseling and not stay at his mother's house as long as there were foster kids there.
Hubert did not confess to sexually abusing Stephanie, although Stephanie claims that Hubert molested her during Mama Lucy's absences.
Despite his confession, Hubert was never prosecuted.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has no record of Hubert's case being referred by police for prosecution, and Mesa police say they cannot locate the police report. However, a transcript of Hubert's taped police confession still exists--it was filed with CPS.
Stephanie and Brittany eventually sued CPS, their caseworker and Lucy Jones in 1994, claiming that the state failed to protect them because caseworkers ignored CPS policies and procedures for keeping foster kids safe. They claimed that their former foster mom ignored clear signs that the girls were being sexually abused and negligently left them in the care of the abuser, her own son. In 1996, Stephanie and Brittany each received a $400,000 settlement from the state as compensation for the psychological damages wrought by Hubert Jones.
Their Pima County Superior Court case is one of several filed in the past decade by children who claimed to have been sexually abused while in state foster care. The steady stream of court cases raises troubling questions about whether CPS adequately licenses foster-care facilities, whether agency caseworkers satisfactorily place and monitor vulnerable children in the state foster care system.
The children's lawsuits, including a proposed class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of kids who by the state's own admission have been sexually abused in foster care, have triggered debates over how many foster kids have been sexually abused under CPS's watch.
But back in 1991, after the adoption of Stephanie and Brittany had been finalized, lawsuits were the farthest thing from Joy and Brian Jackson's mind. They were committed to rearing the little girls, but they also were furious with CPS for misleading them about the challenges they would face in doing so.
Both girls had been traumatized by Hubert Jones' abuse. When they moved into the Jackson home, they began displaying disturbing "sexualized" behavior.
The Jacksons weren't sure they could cope with their daughters' bizarre conduct.
According to psychologists and psychiatrists, Stephanie developed Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), a malady psychologists say afflicts some sexual-abuse victims. Stephanie funneled memories of the abuse into nine different "personalities." Sometimes the personalities would surface in the Jackson home or at school.
Other times Stephanie would simply withdraw, choosing to sit on the floor and rip up bits of paper.
Brittany, who was not yet in kindergarten, frequently exposed herself and masturbated in public. She made sexual advances to adult males. And she threw up several times a day. She vomited when confined in a bathroom. She vomited when her father tried to comb her hair. She vomited when she saw hot dogs. She vomited when she saw a Vatican painting depicting a naked man.
And she tried to kill herself by eating glue. Brittany was hospitalized, and psychiatrists determined that the child was severely depressed. She was put on medication.
The Jacksons spent thousands of dollars on psychiatric treatment for the girls and were told by many professionals that the girls would need such treatment for the rest of their lives.
The Jacksons ultimately decided that the state should pay for the damage it had caused, and hired Tucson attorney Larry Berlin to represent the girls.
During the course of the lawsuit, the Jacksons discovered that the state had ignored warning signs that the Jones foster home was anything but a safe place. Usually the dirty Jones home housed about a dozen kids--five foster kids, two of Lucy Jones' natural children, and several grandchildren. Lucy Jones seemed perpetually overextended. There were too many kids in the house, and Mama Lucy was distracted by all her church activities.
Before Stephanie and Brittany were placed in the home, CPS workers noted that Lucy Jones left Hubert in charge of the foster kids, that the home was inadequately supervised. This was counter to CPS policy, which requires that foster kids be watched by someone who is at least 18. Yet the agency did not reduce the number of kids in the home, or even monitor the home more carefully.
In 1988, Stephanie and Brittany were placed in the Jones foster home because it offered the only available beds. A few months later, Lucy Jones told CPS that a 9-year-old foster child had performed oral sex on her 3-year-old grandson. No adult had been present at the time, Mama Lucy said. After substantiating that the abuse had occurred, CPS closed its investigation--without reprimanding Lucy Jones for failing to supervise the children in the first place. The 9-year-old was removed from the Jones foster home.
Then one day, as Brittany got ready to take a bath, Lucy Jones noticed blood in her panties. When the foster mother questioned the children, Stephanie named Hubert. Instead of reporting the incident to CPS, as required by law, Mama Lucy threw the bloody panties into the washing machine.
In fact, Lucy Jones did not mention the incident to anyone until months after Hubert had confessed to sexually abusing Brittany. But during discovery in the girls' lawsuit, she told a CPS worker that Hubert probably molested Brittany because she, Lucy, had caught her son having sex on the living-room couch with his teenage girlfriend. Lucy Jones, a devout Mormon, said she did not believe in premarital sex, so she forbade Hubert to see the girl. But once Hubert had gotten a taste of sex with his girlfriend, said Lucy, he just couldn't "control himself." That's why he had had his way with Brittany.
The little girls would later allege in their lawsuit that the abuse would not have occurred if CPS had followed its own policy to keep foster kids safe.
CPS policy required that to ensure safety of foster kids, caseworkers conduct "home visits" to their charges at least once a month. The caseworker assigned to Stephanie and Brittany visited the girls only eight times in 35 months.
During the summer of 1990--the time frame in which Hubert confessed he'd abused Brittany--the caseworker did not visit the Jones foster home once.
The little girls also claimed in court that the Jones foster home was not even adequately licensed--CPS licensing workers failed to inspect the foster home regularly and had only given the Jones foster parents a "provisional," or temporary, license during the time the girls were living there.
After Hubert confessed, CPS allowed the Joneses to keep only one foster child in the home. The agency decided not to license Lucy Jones as a foster parent in 1993.
Two years after the state finally banished Lucy Jones from the foster-care system, the former foster mom's natural family made the evening news. In 1995, Lucy Jones' son--Hubert's brother--decapitated his own son in a van on a New Mexico highway and hurled the boy's severed head onto the asphalt. Another child, age 13, managed to escape. The father, who was demented by methamphetamine abuse, is currently serving a life prison sentence in New Mexico.
The Jacksons watched the coverage of the murder on television. The irony did not escape them: Mama Lucy, the woman touted by CPS as one of the finest foster mothers in the state's system, was the biological parent of a confessed child molester and a confessed child killer.
Seven-year-old Tommy had been beaten by his father, so in 1987 state CPS workers in a western Arizona county placed the boy in the home of foster parents Nancy and Dick Warren.
Two months later, the Warrens' 17-year-old grandson Darren moved into the home. Before he arrived, the Warrens had told CPS that their grandson had been accused of molesting a little girl in Oregon.
When Betty Miller, Tommy's CPS caseworker, learned that the teenager had moved into the same home as Tommy Smith, she rang up Darren's caseworker in Oregon. The Oregon caseworker confirmed a "substantiated report" that Darren had molested a little girl, who happened to be his half-sister.
Caseworker Miller feared that Darren would molest Tommy, and twice recommended that "the foster placement [of Tommy] be terminated." But Gary Arnold, her CPS supervisor, overruled her, according to Miller's notes. He told her not to investigate Darren's background further. The reason: Arnold was satisfied that Tommy would be safe because the Warrens had promised that they would watch the boy 24 hours a day.
That didn't happen.
One day Betty Miller discovered that 17-year-old Darren, the "substantiated" child molester, was baby-sitting Tommy when his grandparents were out of town.
Once again, Miller noted her concern in her notes about the danger of "possible molestation" of Tommy.
For the next seven months, Tommy lived in the Warren home. Then, during a visit to his natural family, Tommy French-kissed a relative and said his "new uncle" at the foster home taught him how to do it.
A DES psychologist concluded from Tommy's stick drawings and his sexualized behavior that Tommy had been sodomized. Police were notified. The child was removed from the Warren foster home.
According to Tommy's lawyer, Larry Berlin, supervisor Arnold then "doctored" Tommy's file by writing that he'd checked with the Oregon caseworker, who had said that Darren had not been involved in child sex abuse in Oregon. The Oregon caseworker, however, said in a deposition that he'd told Arnold just the opposite.
(Arnold could not be reached for comment. He was eventually promoted to a district manager position, but left the agency earlier this year. CPS officials, citing employee confidentiality, would not say whether Arnold was disciplined for his conduct in the Tommy Smith case.)
After an extensive interview with Darren, police charged the teenager with sodomizing 7-year-old Tommy.
A doctor examined Tommy and concluded that the sodomy had caused the child to have anal scarring. The anal scar was key evidence in the criminal case against Darren.
In 1989, Darren avoided a trial by pleading guilty to attempted sexual abuse. He was eventually sent to an Arizona prison, but was later released for this reason: In defending the state against a civil lawsuit filed by Tommy, the Arizona Attorney General's Office produced scientific research revealing that anal scars such as Tommy's might also be birth defects. The doctor who examined Tommy then acknowledged that the scar might not have been caused by sodomy.
Tommy's 1991 civil suit named Gary Arnold, CPS and his former foster parents, the Warrens. He claimed in court that Arnold and others should have protected Tommy from Darren by heeding advice of caseworker Miller and removing Tommy from a foster home that contained a suspected child molester.
In 1993, after the doctor admitted in a deposition that the anal scar might not have been caused by sodomy, the state settled Tommy's civil suit, paying him $237,500. The money came from the state's self-insurance program, which is funded by tax dollars.
Why did the state settle with Tommy after the doctor recanted her earlier testimony?
"I think there are two reasons," says Tommy's attorney, Larry Berlin. "One, because Tommy had been sexually abused and settling with him was the honest and righteous thing to do. Two, our discovery revealed that the DES supervisor [Arnold] had doctored records to protect himself and had refused to listen to his caseworker--at the child's expense."
When asked last month to comment on Tommy's case, John Wolfinger, an assistant attorney general who defended the state against Tommy, claimed that Tommy had "recanted" to his guardian and said he'd never been sodomized.
Tommy's court-appointed guardian, Tucson attorney Allan Bogutz, says Tommy never recanted to him.
Tommy did not respond to several requests for interviews for this story.
How Many Children?
Stephanie, Brittany and Tommy all were represented by Tucson lawyer Larry Berlin. According to records obtained from the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the state Department of Administration, Berlin's clients have been the only CPS foster-care kids who have obtained settlements from the state in the past five years. (Five other children claimed they'd been sexually abused in foster care, but their cases were dismissed. In one case, a foster father wrongly accused of molesting his foster daughters obtained a $1.5 million settlement from the state and his former defense attorney.)
In the course of the early litigation, Berlin says he began to see a pattern at CPS--the "systemic" failure of caseworkers to follow CPS's own policies and procedures for placing and protecting foster kids. He began to suspect that many foster kids had been sexually abused while under CPS's watch.
After talking to several former foster kids who said they'd been sexually abused while in the system, Berlin teamed up with Tucson attorney Elliot Glicksman and filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in Pima County Superior Court in July 1994.
Former Pima County public fiduciary Allan Bogutz was named the court-appointed guardian for the children, so the lawsuit carries Bogutz's name. Six former foster kids are also named as plaintiffs.
Bogutz alleges that CPS failed to protect kids from sexual abuse and violated the children's civil rights by exposing them to sexual predators.
Beyond unnamed monetary damages, the suit seeks to force CPS to undergo "systemic changes" that amount to simple reforms--such as following already established policies and procedures to protect kids from danger. State attorneys have vigorously opposed such forced "systemic changes," saying the agency has already instituted numerous reforms.
Bogutz seeks to have a "class" approved by the judge--the class being all Arizona children confirmed by the state's own records to have been sexually abused while in state-licensed foster care from 1986 to at least 1995.
Child advocates say a class action filed on behalf of sexually abused foster kids is rare.
"I won't say it's the only one, but I've never heard of one like it," says Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law. "It's not because the legal theories aren't clear--when a state has custody of a child, there is more likelihood of liability."
But such lawsuits are uncommon, Davidson says, because "these are not kids who can walk into a downtown Phoenix law firm and say we need help--they are the most disadvantaged people in our society."
The ongoing Bogutz case has inched along for five years--partially because it is an unusual case and partially, say lawyers for the children, because the state has balked at producing names of sex-abuse victims in CPS files.
For years, Bogutz and the state have fought court battles over exactly how many children have been sexually abused in foster care.
In 1996, Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael Brown appointed a "special master," University of Arizona law professor Winton Woods, to determine how many child sex-abuse victims could be identified from the state's own files. Woods asked independent social workers to examine CPS case files in two sample six-month periods. In 1997, the team identified files of 21 foster children who were sexually abused during the test period.
Using simple math, the team estimated that 210 kids had been sexually abused while in the state's foster care from 1985 to 1995. That estimate, while possibly large enough to fuel a class-action lawsuit, amounts to less than 1 percent of all of Arizona's foster kids. The estimate is credible--the Child Welfare League of America, which gathers data on children, reports that less than 1 percent of children are molested while in foster care across the nation.
Yet CPS officials and their attorneys contend that the special master's estimate is highly exaggerated.
"That number is blown way out of proportion," says Jim Hart, assistant director of the DES division of Youth and Family Services, which oversees CPS.
"We went through and read every one of those cases," Hart says.
CPS officials say that out of the 21 cases, they found only 10 were "substantiated"--and two of the 10 cases, they say, were "child on child."
Berlin counters, "And so what's their point? That as you extrapolate and apply this data to the special master's report there are really only 80 children, not 210 children?
"If so, let's find the children and take care of them."
CPS also downplays a 1994 study conducted by the National Child Welfare Resource Center--commissioned and paid for by the state. The study looked at all cases in CPS's system on one day in 1993--4,152 files. The National Center turned up "allegations" that 81 foster kids in the system had been "severely" sexually abused.
In 1997, Judge Brown asked Hornby-Zeller Associates in Maine to review the National Center study and produce the names of children "who were sexually abused while in foster care."
Hornby-Zeller identified 11 more kids, for a total of 92 foster children.
Steve Lippman, then the state's attorney, disputed that the 92 kids had been sexually abused in foster care.
". . . it is expected that a significant number of the 92 indicated files will pertain to sex abuse which did not occur while the child was in State custody," Lippman wrote in a pleading. "It is expected the files will relate the reports of sex abuse received while the child was in State custody, but pertain to acts and events prior to the child being in custody."
The Hornby-Zeller findings were supposed to have been confirmed by the special master a year ago, but Judge Brown has yet to indicate he's received the report.
Because names and case files are still in the hands of the special master, there is no way to tell how many of Arizona's foster children were sexually abused from 1985 to the present.
The legal imbroglio places Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano in a delicate position. Much of her campaign centered on helping forgotten children, yet attorneys from her office are defending the state against the claims being filed by children.
"In my view," Napolitano says, "if the state has caused damages, we ought to reach an appropriate resolution and pay. But we also have an obligation not to pay without there being a level of proof.
"In the Bogutz case, there are a number of named clients, and each of those cases can be evaluated individually. . . . Going further and providing compensation for a large class is something else again, which is why we need the court to decide if we're talking about individuals or a broad class.
"My real concern," she concludes, "is if we have children who have been injured, let's take care of those kids."
CPS had received numerous complaints that Jason's mother, an alcoholic, had neglected and abused her three children.
Finally, a caseworker took decisive action in August 1990. Four-year-old Jason and his two older siblings were removed from their filthy Tucson apartment.
Concluding that Jason's mother was, for the moment, a lost cause, CPS called a family conference. Jason's aunts and grandmother and his then-teenage uncle Mike agreed the kids should be temporarily placed with a maternal aunt. But after a few months and the constant meddling of Jason's mom, the aunt returned the children to CPS.
Mike says the aunt failed to tell anyone else in the family that she was relinquishing the children--and Mike belatedly discovered that the 4-year-old was separated from his siblings and was being bounced from foster home to foster home.
In July 1991, when Jason was 5, CPS placed him in the foster home of John James, a divorced middle-aged schoolteacher with a heart condition. James had been a longtime foster father, but as early as 1986, according to CPS's own files, he was beginning to "burn out" on foster parenting. Nevertheless, there were six foster kids living with James when Jason arrived that summer. (The home was only licensed for four foster kids.)
One of the boys, Julio, had been sexually abused in his biological family's home and had been caught acting out sexually in other foster homes, according to CPS case notes. At the very time Jason arrived, CPS was paying for a therapist to help Julio deal with his sexual problems.
In 1989, months before Jason arrived, James had caught Julio and another foster child, David, with their pants down, according to CPS documents. Julio later confessed to CPS that he had sodomized David.
CPS caseworker Stephen Ellis placed little Jason in the James home despite the presence of two sexually active older boys.
In the 17 months that Jason stayed at the James foster home, Ellis visited him only six times, according to court documents. CPS policy required at least one monthly visit.
Jason's personality changed shortly after he got to the James home. He was expelled from preschool for being distracted and angry. He masturbated frequently.
In the fall of 1992, Jason's older brother Chris was moved into the James home. Julio propositioned Chris. Chris refused. Then Jason confided to Chris that he was being sodomized by Julio. At Chris' urging, the 6-year-old told his foster dad that Julio, then 15, had been sodomizing him.
CPS's own investigation confirmed the sodomy. Julio told CPS investigators he'd raped Jason, using Vaseline as a lubricant. He also said he forced the child to perform oral sex.
"The fact that these molests have been occurring for several years and that despite the fact that Julio was caught in sexual activity on at least two occasions should have raised concerns about the need to supervise him and to not permit him to share a bedroom with a child he had been observed to be involving in sexual activity," CPS investigator Andy Harclerode wrote in December 1992.
Harclerode wrote that the James home was filthy, that Jason's bedsheets were "malodorous" and that the foster father's own bedroom smelled of animal urine. When Harclerode queried David about a "large yellowish stain midway down [James'] bed near the edge," the boy identified it as "cat urine."
The social worker noted he had to air out his own clothes after his visits to the James foster home.
CPS notes say James voluntarily withdrew from the foster-care system in December 1992 because of Julio's sexual abuse of Jason. CPS licensing worker Holly Hammond noted that she doubted that James, who had by then adopted Julio, could "keep children safe and deny Julio access to them."
Jason was removed from the James home and was permanently placed with his uncle Mike and his grandmother.
He later joined the proposed class-action lawsuit, contending that he was sodomized by Julio because he was negligently placed in the home, and because his caseworker, Ellis, failed to adequately monitor him or make minimal required home visits.
Ellis, who has been promoted to a supervisory position within the agency, testified in a December 1998 deposition that he didn't recall checking the James foster home file or visiting the James home prior to placing Jason. And he said the licensing worker, Holly Hammond, did not tell him about the boys' sexual past.
Ellis did not know that Julio had been severely sexually abused in his biological family's home, that he was being treated for the abuse, that he'd acted out sexually many times. And Ellis did not know about David's history of acting out with Julio.
Of course, all that information was available in CPS files.
Hammond, who is no longer with the agency, disagreed with Ellis' version, testifying that she had "shared with Ellis the information about the kids."
CPS officials, citing employee confidentiality rules, could not say whether either Hammond or Ellis were disciplined for their handling of Jason's case.
Now 12, Jason has vivid memories of his stay at the James foster home.
James, he recalls, was a big "smelly" man with a beard and glasses. He remembers the foster father "shed hair like a cat." He recalls the stench of the house, the animal urine, the dirty sheets, the bad food. James would make him take naps on James' bed, Jason says, and the foster dad poured a glass of water on the 5-year-old if he didn't go to sleep. He says his foster dad never molested him.
"I remember the first day I got there I didn't like it," he says. He missed Chris, the big brother who protected him.
Jason says his roommate, David, also fell prey to Julio.
What did Julio do to David?
"It's kind of hard to explain," says Jason. "It is what happened to me."
He does not remember ever seeing his caseworker.
What would he say to Julio now, if he met him on the street?
"I wouldn't even talk to him," says Jason.
And would he say anything to his former foster father?
"I wouldn't tell him anything," says Jason.
He is devoted to his uncle Mike, who cooks for him, teaches at his school, takes him to sporting events, makes him do his homework. Mike makes lollipops, and spaghetti sauce from scratch.
For years, Jason had nightmares that CPS would take him from his uncle. Now, he says, "If anyone tried to take me away, I would kick and scream."
Now 24, Mike was a teenager when the boys were dropped at his doorstep in 1992. He put off his own plans to go to college so he could parent Chris and Jason.
The state offered to pay for counseling for Jason, says Mike, but after a few sessions the family grew distrustful of the state counselors and feared that CPS would take the kids away again.
"There have been many times," says Mike, "when I've thought to myself, 'Does Jason really need to be in this lawsuit?' Then I think of the therapy he needs, and we don't have the money. . . . Plus, this has to stop. There must be tons of children out there who were molested."
Vanessa is 16. She is grotesquely thin, looks anorexic, says she eats only one meal a day. Sitting on the couch in her grandmother's house in southern Arizona, Vanessa says she quit going to high school last year because kids made fun of her skinniness and her speech impediment--she was born without a palate and has endured several operations. Mostly, Vanessa says, she hangs out at her grandmother's house and watches TV.
She does not like to talk about what happened 11 years ago, when her grandmother's boyfriend, Phil, also lived at the house.
"I don't remember nothing," she says at first.
When questioned again about what Phil did to her, she gets angry: "I've blocked it away from my head, that way I don't have to think about it or nothing. Then you come and bring it back in my head. I don't want to remember nothing. . . . I just get very angry. I just hate talking to anybody about this. It happened such a long time ago, I don't know why everyone is bringing it up now."
She looks down at the stylish platform sneakers that her grandmother bought her.
"When I'm all alone, and there's nobody here, I think about what happened and I get angry and I get mad."
According to court documents, Vanessa was 5 years old when Phil molested her.
It didn't have to happen.
The year before, CPS had taken Vanessa from her mother, who had abused her, and placed her with her grandmother. Although state law requires CPS to do background checks on all adults living in a home before a child is placed there, no one completed a background check on Phil.
If the CPS caseworker had done her job, she would have learned that Phil had been convicted of child molestation in California, long before he took up with Vanessa's grandmother.
The grandmother's judgment was blinded by love at the time. She knew Phil was a recovering heroin addict and a practicing alcoholic with several DUIs to show for it. She knew he was violent--he once shoved her around enough to prompt her to call the police.
Vanessa must have been an ideal victim.
She couldn't talk very well, which may explain why, when she tried to tell a CPS caseworker what happened, the caseworker didn't understand.
Vanessa then told her mother, who notified authorities.
In 1993, Phil pleaded guilty to molesting Vanessa. He is currently serving a prison sentence for the offense.
CPS separated Vanessa from her grandmother, bounced her from her mother's house to a foster-care facility, then returned Vanessa to the grandmother in 1998.
Vanessa's grandmother still believes Phil is innocent. She clings to the notion that Vanessa's mother "coached" Vanessa into fabricating the story to regain custody of Vanessa.
"Phil did touch her," says Vanessa's grandmother, "but not in that way. Vanessa used to urinate in her panties. He didn't like me to leave her urine panties on her, so he'd change her."
She did not attend any of the court proceedings related to Phil's attacks on Vanessa.
"For years, I've lived in a vacuum," she says. "I never pushed to find out what happened when he was prosecuted and sent away. . . . Why would he come into my house and do these things?"
Maybe, she concedes, she is in some sort of denial.
Despite their divergent views of Phil, Vanessa and her grandmother are devoted to each other.
Vanessa says she won't let her grandmother's belief in Phil's innocence get between them. Instead, Vanessa tries not to remember what happened when she was little. If she does, she says, she feels as if "no one is taking my side."
Sometimes she thinks about killing herself.
"She's a little girl who has gone through a lot," her grandmother says. "And she's done it alone."
In November 1996, Shawn was a happy 12-year-old. He had received four "Excellent Conduct Awards" from his school for his good behavior. But there was a problem. Shawn's teacher didn't like the way he smelled. She called CPS, and an investigating caseworker visiting Shawn's house concluded Shawn needed to be removed until his disorganized mother learned how to keep a clean house.
Shawn was taken to a state-licensed group home for foster kids. Several teenage boys resided in the home, including Mark. No one liked Mark. Other boys told the group home staff that Mark always wanted to do sexual stuff.
So the group home staff let Mark room with 12-year-old Shawn.
Shawn was not sophisticated about institutional life. He had never been away from his mother. He was a little boy who loved animals and trucks.
Shawn was given a chore at the shelter: mopping a floor early in the morning. On the first day Shawn attempted to do his chore, a resident shoved a broomstick into Shawn's rectum as the boy leaned into a cabinet to get some soap. Shawn screamed and cried, which he realized later was a big mistake.
"If you cried at that shelter," says Shawn, "you got treated like a bitch."
And 12-year-old Shawn soon became Mark's bitch.
"One night, I was in bed trying to go to sleep, kickin' it with my headphones, and Mark walked in the room. . . . He said if I didn't do what he wanted, he'd get everybody in the shelter to beat me up.
"I punched him in the face, I kicked him in the kidneys, but it didn't make much difference.
"I took it for two months."
Kids in the shelter mocked Shawn for "being a fag." One kid even urinated on Shawn's clothes, he says.
Finally, Shawn told his CPS caseworker that Mark was sodomizing him.
"My caseworker told me I provoked it," says Shawn.
In April 1997, Shawn was returned home to his mother, Jill.
Accused of keeping a dirty house and sending Shawn to school in stinking clothes, Jill had pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse. She was put on a year's probation, and the judge promised if she kept up her house, the child-abuse count would be expunged from her record.
Despite her legal problems, Jill was overjoyed to have Shawn home again. At first, says Jill, Shawn seemed to be okay.
Then he began ripping curtains, punching holes in the walls, becoming a discipline problem at school. One day he started shoving Jill. Then he began hitting her.
"I began to worry that I might have a fractured skull someday," says Jill.
"This kid is not far from killing, I can tell you that right now," she says.
Shawn says, "I met my temper at the shelter."
Jill is getting therapy for Shawn, but she has little money and wonders how long she can afford it. The state has offered no assistance, she says.
In 1998, Shawn sued CPS and his caseworkers in Maricopa County Superior Court, contending their negligence in placing and monitoring the 12-year-old enabled the sex abuse.
The state's attorney, John Wolfinger, counters that the sex between Mark and Shawn was "consensual."
"All I can tell you is that there was an investigation by Mesa police," says Wolfinger. "The sex was consensual. The boy [Mark] admitted that and so did Shawn. That's an example of 'sex abuse in foster care'--two young men in an age appropriate group home being monitored by a staff."
One of those forgettable "child on child" cases.
When Jim Hart, of DES, is asked why Shawn was removed from his mother's house in the first place, he says CPS has changed the way it does things. The agency isn't so "prosecutorial" anymore, he says. Nowadays, if CPS finds a kid in a dirty house, and if the child is not otherwise being abused or neglected, the caseworker will leave the child at home. And send someone over to teach the parents good housekeeping skills.
It's all part of the new, improved CPS.
Are the Children Protected?
For at least a decade, Arizona's foster-care system has been studied, investigated, criticized and reformed.
Liberal state legislators and child advocates have criticized CPS for not removing children from abusive or neglectful natural parents.
CPS has been chastised by conservatives for removing children from abusive or neglectful natural parents.
"Some people believe CPS is too intrusive; some people believe CPS is not aggressive enough. It makes it difficult for the front-line worker. No matter what you do, you get criticized," says Hart, of the division of Youth and Family Services.
"It's a pretty challenging profession because you don't hear about the successes," he says.
"We've got over 6,000 kids in [foster] care today and literally scores come in and scores go out with successful placement. You don't see those kinds of reports. But needless to say, if there is one [bad] incident in the system, you read about those and people remember them, as opposed to the successes."
The current CPS drive toward keeping the biological family together (and avoiding foster care unless absolutely necessary) was fueled in the early 1990s by former Arizona legislator and current U.S. Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican.
Many child advocates claimed that the Foster Care Review Board, an organization of volunteers formed in 1978 to review cases and make recommendations to judges about whether a child should stay in foster care, was essentially ineffectual.
Salmon held legislative hearings. Conservative legislators and the ACLU both concluded that CPS was too hasty in removing kids from their homes and banishing them to foster care. In the years that followed, the Legislature and DES instituted a number of reforms meant to follow the conservative creed of keeping families together. Among the reforms:
* A 24-hour child abuse hot line manned by trained social workers.
* Response to all reports of child abuse made through the hot line.
* "Family Builders." Starting in 1998, so-called "low-priority reports" (like complaints about dirty houses) are now referred to private subcontractors who assess conditions in a household and provide services to the family on a voluntary basis.
* A computerized database of all CPS cases, including caseworker notes, helps CPS quickly access information about a single child.
* Model Court--brings biological family and CPS into court within five to seven days of a child being taken into custody to decide what happens to that child.
* "Childhelp USA." Starting in 1998, this private subcontractor began providing a "collaborative effort" between police, the medical community and CPS in investigating child abuse.
* A CPS ombudsman who investigates complaints from the public.
* Revamping of CPS guidelines. Among other things, new guidelines no longer require caseworkers to visit foster kids once a month, as long as the children are visited by less-trained parental aides or other professionals.
The class-action lawsuit seeks to have the court force CPS to require caseworkers to visit foster kids at least once a month.
"Caseworkers need to know the children. At a minimum, they should visit the children once a month, but it should be more," says Beth Rosenberg, a former DES administrator who is now a senior associate for Children's Action Alliance, a child advocacy group.
CPS caseworkers continue to be overworked and underpaid. The highest salary a caseworker can make without legislative approval is $29,000. The Legislature must approve all subsequent raises up to a ceiling of $40,000.
Annual turnover of CPS caseworkers is 30 percent.
Because of the high turnover and low pay, caseworkers with less than two years' experience often make major decisions about children and families.
Foster parents continue to be underpaid as well. The state currently pays foster parents $358 monthly to care for a child. In 1995, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated the average cost of caring for a foster child to be $572 monthly.
This year, the Legislature refused DES's request to increase reimbursement to foster parents. The shortfall is one reason the state continues to suffer a shortage of foster homes. Currently, 2,000 foster homes are licensed to accommodate 6,000 foster kids.
In 1997, the Arizona auditor general noted that DES needed to recruit more foster homes, and that oversight of group homes for foster children is "inadequate."
No one knows if any of the reforms instituted in the past five years have reduced the incidence of sexual abuse. CPS does not keep statistics on how many children were sexually abused in foster care.
The only data come from CPS ombudsman Greta Mang. She says her office has looked into two complaints about sex abuse in foster care in the past year. One complaint was found by the police to be "consensual" between two boys. The other involved children being sexually abused at a group home. Mang says CPS acted swiftly to remove the children.
But not every sex-abuse case is referred to the ombudsman.
Rosenberg, of Children's Action Alliance, says the only way to measure whether foster kids are now safer is to "duplicate" the 1994 National Center Study, which looked at all files for children in foster care on one day.
Nevertheless, assistant attorney general Wolfinger, who defends the state in the cases brought by foster kids who say they were abused under CPS's watch, says the "injunctive relief" requested in the Bogutz case--namely, that the court order CPS to appropriately place and monitor foster kids--is legally unnecessary.
Wolfinger's boss, Attorney General Napolitano, says: "I don't want to wait for a court injunction . . . to force us to do something."
But she also adds: "If there are systemic changes that need to be made, our obligation is to help identify those and then work with CPS to see that it happens."
Stephanie and Brittany
Stephanie and Brittany sit in a booth at Applebee's, their favorite restaurant, eating hamburgers and fries.
Stephanie is now 14 and her little sister is 12. Both girls go to private schools. Both have had intensive therapy. Both have vivid recollections of Hubert, their unresponsive foster mother, Lucy, and the sex abuse.
"Even today," says Brittany, "if our mom does our hair in the bathroom, we get sick. That comes from what Hubert did to us in the bathroom.
"I don't remember what Hubert looks like. But I remember the things he did. . . . I used to think it was my fault for going in there, for going into the bathroom when he asked me. . . . I don't even know how many times he did it. . . . What he did wasn't right, and he knew it, and I don't know if he even feels bad about it."
"The state should feel bad," interrupts Stephanie. "If they had checked on us, they could have stopped it."
The girls have their own ideas about how to keep children safe in foster homes.
"The caseworkers should be more like our mom and dad [the Jacksons] who have a gut feeling what's right," says Stephanie.
"Caseworkers should have a key to the foster homes so they can do surprise visits," she adds. "There should be hidden cameras to check on children. They should have a little phone only kids knew about so they could call for help."
"There should be undercover foster kids like in the FBI," says Brittany. "And when foster parents are arrested, no one should blow the cover of the FBI foster kids."
"Someday," says Brittany, "I will write a book. It will be called 'Behind Closed Doors.'"
Stephanie looks over at her kid sister.
"I kinda think the universe will get back at Hubert," she says.
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437, or online at firstname.lastname@example.org
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