In Dependency Court, a Judge Comes Face to Face with the Biggest Threat to Children Their Moms and Dads
In reporting this series, New Times staff writer Paul Rubin spent months at the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in downtown Phoenix. He focused on the work of two Superior Court judges, Michael Kemp and Ronald Reinstein, and on their delinquency and dependency calendars, respectively. Delinquency Court judges hear cases about minors accused of committing crimes. Dependency Court judges hear cases about children who may have been abused or neglected and have the power to sever a parent's legal rights in so-called "dependency hearings," usually long after the child has become a "ward" of the state. Until July 1, 2008, Dependency Court was closed to the public. But Judge Reinstein, who since has retired from the bench, agreed before that date to allow New Times access to his courtroom, with the stipulation that no names or other identifying information be disclosed. Names of juveniles in these stories have been changed, except for those whose criminal cases were transferred to adult court."I'm adopted! I'm adopted!"
JUDGING JUVIES: Second in a series
Six-year-old Megan lets loose after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein tells her and her older sister, Jenna, that their foster parents have officially become Mom and Dad.
Judge Ron Reinstein
To emphasize that she really gets it, the youngster slowly spells out her new last name for all to hear.
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The girls are dressed in their Sunday best, pretty bright dresses and shiny black shoes.
Their "new" parents, who are in their late 20s, beam with pride. They met at a Bible-study class for singles and, after getting married, took a stab at being foster parents before having their "own" kids.
They did not reckon they would fall so much in love with the sweet little girls, one of whom has significant medical problems.
The judge's courtroom in downtown Phoenix is empty but for the girls, their new parents, court personnel, attorneys, other advocates involved, and a reporter.
Legally, this courtroom is supposed to be closed to the public. But months before Megan and Jenna bounced into court, Judge Reinstein already had pulled back the curtain on a part of the legal system that long had been shrouded in secrecy.
He did so by allowing New Times to observe the proceedings in his courtroom, asking only that the newspaper not identify the children involved by their real names.
This is Dependency Court.
One of two prongs of the county's juvenile-justice system (the other is Delinquency Court), its judges consider abuse and neglect allegations made by state Child Protective Services against parents or guardians.
Federal law provides a broad definition of abuse and neglect as "any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."
Unlike Delinquency Court, where judges try to sort out what is best for juveniles and for public safety, Dependency Court is all about the kids.
Its judges rule on whether children should stay in CPS custody after the agency removes them from their homes, and for how long. The children are put into shelters, group homes, or foster homes or, if possible, placed with "safe" family members.
Under Arizona law, the judges also may order severance of parental rights.
CPS had taken Megan and Jenna from their birth mother, Maggie, four years before this final adoption hearing, after a fire at her trailer home killed the girls' 7-year-old half-brother and injured another half-brother. (The girls' surviving half-brother and a half-sister were placed with different foster parents.)
The blaze ignited after Maggie and her sister, high on crack cocaine and methamphetamine, had left the premises, leaving the young boys alone.
Police reports said the fire probably was caused by burning drug paraphernalia.
The little sisters were with their mother during the fire.
Only one of the three men who had fathered Maggie's five children still was around. The other two were in parts unknown.
Maggie somehow evaded criminal prosecution for her young son's eminently preventable death.
Yet CPS caseworkers continued to list "family reunification" as its goal for the woman and her surviving children for several months after the fire.
Perhaps that should not have come as a surprise, as CPS policy and practice long have been to try to reunite parents with their children, if at all possible.
But some mothers and fathers clearly are not fit to safely parent their children.
One monumental task of a Dependency Court judge is to figure out which ones these are.
Over the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 343 cases in Arizona in which the rights of parents were severed.
Maggie would have to negotiate an array of hurdles — drug testing, counseling, and other requirements — before CPS and Judge Reinstein would let her reunite with her surviving children.
She never did make the grade.
"It's so hard for parents to succeed in doing what they are ordered to do in dependency cases," the judge said later. "Trying to maintain a job and do all the other things is much more taxing than even being on probation for a crime. And when substance abuse is involved, it's a real uphill struggle."
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.
The law sought to curb so-called "foster-care drift," a legal limbo in which children neither are freed for adoption nor allowed to return to their parents. It also made it tougher for judges to terminate parental rights, and instructed state child-welfare agencies to make "reasonable efforts" (the definition of "reasonable" was wide open for interpretation) to reunite biological parents and their kids when possible.
CPS caseworkers were forced to lead a kind of schizophrenic existence:
Their marching orders from the feds were to cut down on removing so many children. But Arizona law demanded that CPS protect children from parental abuse and neglect.
Something had to give, and it did in the late 1980s — in favor of yanking far more children from parents than ever before. As a result, some in the media and in the state Legislature began depicting CPS caseworkers as storm troopers who snatched kids willy-nilly from many wrongly accused parents.
Some stories accurately described how many children were stuck in large and impersonal group homes and foster care, waiting endlessly for adoptive parents to magically appear in lieu of being allowed to go back "home."
But sentiment shifted again in the early 1990s after the murders of two little girls, beaten to death in separate foster homes by their "caregivers."
Politicos who had been flailing at CPS for "breaking up" too many families now loudly supported reunification of children with their birth parents in all but the very worst cases.
The most recent overhaul of Arizona's child-welfare system came soon after Janet Napolitano was elected governor in November 2002.
Napolitano and many others were particularly repulsed by the November 2001 death of 10-day-old Anndreah Robertson. The infant died of exposure to her Phoenix mother's crack-smoking during the pregnancy and after she was born.
Baby Anndreah tested positive for cocaine at the hospital. Yet CPS caseworkers, who learned about the situation early on, allowed the newborn's mother, Demitres Robertson, to take her home after three days.
The four-pound infant died a week later of gastrointestinal problems later attributed to cocaine exposure, dehydration, and malnutrition.
The evidence revealed that both Anndreah's mother and grandmother, Lillian Butler, had smoked crack around the newborn after she went home.
Demitres Robertson later pleaded guilty to manslaughter, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and is eligible for release in August 2010. Judge Reinstein sentenced Lillian Butler to four years in prison following a child-abuse plea.
In just her third day in office, Governor Janet Napolitano established an advisory commission on Child Protective Services reform. That group would make more than 200 recommendations for improving Arizona's child-welfare system.
Later in 2003, the governor called the state Legislature into a special session devoted mostly to CPS reform. Though she wound up getting only about half of the $35 million she requested, those running the troubled state agency got the message: Take suspected abused and neglected kids first and ask questions later.
From March 2003 to March 2005, CPS removals of children increased more than 40 percent over the previous two-year stretch.
But one problem that soon arose was that there were not enough potential adoptive parents or foster homes to go around. That led to record numbers of juveniles stuck in foster care, and for extended periods of time.
The number of kids in foster care increased from 6,200 when Napolitano took office to more than 10,000 by June 2006.
At the same time, a new kind of cautionary tale emerged, that of children taken from parents by CPS after a slipshod investigation, compounded by the agency's refusal to admit mistakes afterward.
CPS has been making conscious efforts in recent years not to remove as many children as during the frenzy of Napolitano's early days in office.
But about 10,000 children still are in "out-of-home" care, a number that has held steady since 2005, even as Arizona's youth population has continued to grow.
About 500 of those children turn 18 every year and "age out" of the system, with limited governmental support.
A 15-year-old girl with dark, curly hair steps into the courtroom after nervously hugging an older woman in the lobby.
The teen's name is Alex and, days earlier, she had given birth to a girl at a Phoenix hospital.
Both baby and mother tested positive at the hospital for opiates immediately after the delivery, and (unlike in the tragic case of Anndreah Robertson) CPS immediately put the infant into foster care.
Alex already had admitted to authorities that she and her boyfriend scammed emergency rooms in southern California to get prescriptions for Vicodin and other drugs.
Seeking a new source of drugs, the pair moved to Arizona about four days before the birth of Alex's child.
But their plan failed, and Alex now is appearing before Reinstein at a preliminary protective hearing — the first step in what could lead to the severance of the girl's parental rights.
An attorney representing Alex introduces himself to the girl in the courtroom — so much for a pre-game strategy. The father of the baby is not around, but he, too, has been appointed an attorney.
In the back of the courtroom, the older woman who embraced young Alex in the hall raises her hand as if she wants to say something.
Reinstein asks her who she is.
"I'm a grandmother from Florida," says the woman, bedecked in jewels and wearing a long, purple dress adorned with multi-colored beads. "I came here to help this girl. I would like to know if her baby can be put up for adoption."
The judge says it is way too premature to discuss anything like that.
He asks Alex about her background. The girl says she never has attended school, has "moved around a lot," and is barely literate, having learned how to read a little from a "Hooked on Phonics" tape and by watching Sesame Street.
"I was born in the U.S., so that makes me a citizen of here," Alex says.
Reinstein gives the girl a primer on how the dependency system works.
"The goal right now is to try to reunify you with your baby, but how fast that's going to be isn't for sure yet," he says, asking her if she understands what he is saying.
Alex nods that she does.
"It depends on how well you do with the things you are asked to do. Let's say you don't cooperate with CPS, and you don't get the help you need. Then, your parental rights potentially could be terminated. But that's way down the road, at least nine months to over a year."
Speaking up again, the colorfully dressed older woman says she wants to hire her own attorney to represent the girl. Reinstein tells her that Alex's new lawyer is an able advocate but that it is her call.
Another attorney, who is representing the baby's legal interests, as a guardian ad litem, suggests that Alex, too, needs a guardian because of her youth and lack of education.
"Guardian ad litem? What's that?" the girl asks.
"Someone to advocate what's in your best interests as a person, not just the legal side of things," the baby's guardian explains.
Alex looks back to the older woman.
Reinstein asks the woman what her specific family connection is to Alex. She allows that she is not exactly the girl's grandmother but is part of her extended family.
The judge smiles briefly at the notion that grandmother is not really grandmother.
He remains courteous to the woman and to Alex.
Reinstein is what citizens want a judge to be — polite, attentive, calm, and decisive. You may not agree with him, but you respect him, and vice-versa.
Out in the hall after the hearing, the older woman tells New Times that she only wants what is best for the baby ("He's helpless right now, you know") and for drug-addicted Alex.
Alex is supposed to return to court a few weeks later for an initial dependency hearing. At least until then (and certainly much longer), the baby will remain in the care and custody of CPS.
But when that next date arrives, Alex fails to show up. The "grandmother" also is nowhere to be seen. A CPS caseworker says the girl has not checked in with her since shortly after the first hearing.
Though the process still will take months, it seems likely that, short of a drastic turn of events, Alex's parental rights will be legally severed.
Hopefully, a couple will adopt the infant as their own. (Over a year's time that ended last June 30, 1,475 children were adopted in Maricopa County, according to presiding juvenile judge Eileen Willett).
Alex's case is an easy one for Reinstein because the girl abandoned her baby. Many others, however, pose far greater challenges for everyone concerned.
"The tough ones, where you are able to figure something out that may make a child's life better now or later, those are the cases that a judge lives for," Reinstein would say after his two-year stint in Dependency Court.
One case involved a baby from Mexico named Carlos and his mother, Maria.
When Carlos was 10 months old, Maria tried to sneak into the United States to join her husband in New York. She paid a "coyote" most of her life savings to usher her and Carlos across the border near Nogales.
Before crossing, the coyote somehow convinced Maria that it would be safer if she and her son crossed in separate groups.
Maria never did make it across. But Carlos did.
The mother of three contacted Mexican authorities as soon as she could and told them what had happened.
Officials at the Mexican consulate in Phoenix said they would help but needed Maria's birth certificate, a photo of Carlos, and DNA samples from the woman to prove she was the missing child's biological mother, in the lucky event that he turned up.
Five long months passed before Phoenix police came upon a healthy toddler during a raid of a west side drop house. The adults at the house claimed not to know anything about the baby's origins other than a coyote had dropped him off there at some point.
Judge Reinstein came into the picture.
CPS soon asked the judge to sever the parental rights of Carlos' absent mother and father, which ordinarily would have been a formality. That ruling would have freed up the baby for adoption, which is one of the agency's missions.
The judge slowed things down, scheduling another hearing for a few months later after noting that he knew there was a mother out there somewhere trying desperately to find her baby.
Phoenix attorney Danny Ortega, who has helped many a Latino immigrant in trouble over the years, got wind of the unusual dependency case and offered his services for free.
In the interim, Arizona officials learned from the Mexican consulate about Maria's plight and soon put two and two together.
The state took possession of the woman's DNA, compared it with Carlos', and confirmed a match.
Judge Reinstein devised a game plan: He would grant temporary custody of Carlos to the consulate if the Mexican government would fly the baby back to his mother at its expense.
At a hearing attended by New Times, officials from Mexico and Arizona agreed to do as Reinstein had asked.
Within days, Maria cradled Carlos at the Mexico City airport.
Such happy endings are unfortunately the exception in Dependency Court.
Far more often, judges retire to their chambers wondering what will become of the children whose young lives already have been so badly damaged.
One of these children, Michelle, lost trust in just about everyone before Judge Reinstein ever heard her name — and with good reason.
Her dependency case came to the judge when she was 10, after Avondale police responded to a report of child molestation at her paternal grandfather's home.
Michelle, her older brother, and her parents had been living with her grandparents for some time because of family financial problems.
Police had asked Michelle's father if he knew of any "inappropriate behavior" between Grandpa and Michelle.
Remarkably, the man said that on two occasions he had seen his own father rubbing Michelle's groin area, but, according to a police report, "he could not confirm if [the grandfather] was actually touching his daughter's groin."
The dad also admitted that his niece (Michelle's cousin) had told him that she had seen Grandpa rubbing up against Michelle in bed. He said he had been told of the older man's "sex play" with other granddaughters.
The father conceded that it was not unusual for the children to sleep with Grandpa, because Grandma worked as a night security guard.
In his 60s and working as a part-time preacher, the grandfather was not immediately arrested.
But CPS, which had learned from police about the occurrences at Grandpa's house, instructed Michelle's parents to keep their daughter away from the man.
The couple and their two children moved out.
A few months passed as the Avondale police investigation continued.
But officers responded one night to a "welfare check" at the grandparents' home and found Michelle there with Grandpa and her parents.
Michelle's mother told police that an unnamed "someone" at CPS had said it was okay for the girl to return to Grandpa's home.
Within an hour, CPS took the two kids from their parents and put them into foster homes.
A county grand jury later indicted Grandpa on several counts of child molestation. It also issued indictments against Michelle's parents for child abuse, with prosecutors alleging that the couple had done nothing to keep their daughter out of Grandpa's vile clutches.
Later, Dad would confess that he had known about the sexual abuse of his daughter for at least two months but had not reported it to authorities.
Both parents later pleaded guilty and were put on probation.
Grandpa was sentenced to 17 years in prison and will not be eligible for release until 2022, when he would be 84 years old.
It might seem that a father and mother who had, in a sense, pimped out their young daughter to her granddad in return for a place to stay would have forfeited their right to be parents.
But CPS never sought to sever parental rights in this case. Instead, it continued to push toward "family reunification" for Michelle and her brother.
Both children continued to express love for their birth parents, though.
Michelle refused to speak to anyone in detail about the awful things that had happened to her.
For more than a year, Judge Reinstein closely monitored how CPS was handling the case and was not altogether pleased:
Though Michelle did receive some counseling, it was not specific or intense enough for the judge's liking. He ordered CPS to use respected Scottsdale therapist Diana Vigil to work with the distressed youngster.
But there were positives: In court, the judge repeatedly expressed thanks about kindnesses Michelle's foster mother showed the troubled young girl.
Reinstein also kept an eye on how Michelle's parents were faring with their own therapy, which proved to be an up-and-down proposition, in part because of the dad's hot temper.
But CPS' family-reunification plan stayed in place.
Finally, almost two years after the agency took the kids, the agency was ready to give them back.
Michelle's parents would not get back full custody of their kids overnight. The judge first approved supervised weekend visits with Mom and Dad, which increased over the next months to all-day visits.
But then a lawyer for Michelle's father told the judge at a status hearing, "This family is snake-bit when it comes to housing and any kind of good luck."
The attorney explained that the parents were behind on their rent and were so broke that their electricity was about to be turned off.
"I wish I could help you with the electric bill," Judge Reinstein told them after hearing their latest accounts of financial woe. But judges cannot do that sort of thing.
Several months later, with the pair's finances apparently in better shape, CPS returned the kids to the parents on a full-time basis and ended its dependency case.
The postscript to Michelle's case is a work in progress, court documents suggest, and not a pretty one.
Last year, Michelle's mother filed a court petition against her husband after they split up, and he had not paid any child support as ordered. The couple later reunited.
It is uncertain where Michelle, who is now 14, and her brother currently are living.
Now retired from the bench, Ron Reinstein is busier than he was during 22 years as a Superior Court judge.
Among his current duties, Reinstein is a consultant to the Arizona Supreme Court and chairs the court's Commission on Victims in the Courts. He also lectures nationally on DNA and its powerful place in today's judicial system.
But the former judge says he still wonders how the kids, whose cases he got to know so well in dependency court, are faring.
"When parents drag their kids through so much, how can we expect these kids to pull it all together and have good lives?" Reinstein says. "It can happen, and it does. But, you know, we really shouldn't expect a judge or a government agency to solve [very many people's] problems. All we can do is try."
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