LEFT TO OTHERS' DEVICESTHE SAD SAGA OF THE BOY ON THE PLETHYSMOGRAPH
When a hospital technician attached a gizmo onto Sam's penis to measure his responses to sexually explicit photographs, it is unlikely that he was terribly surprised.
After all, 12-year-old Sam has undergone various types of "sex therapy" for half of his life.
His mother molested him when he was 3. When he was 6, he was taken from her and placed in a series of foster homes. The boy's sad relationship with his mother, Wanda C., was told in the March 14, 1990, issue of New Times. ("Sam" was a pseudonym.)
Last spring Sam himself allegedly molested other children in a foster home.
The state sent Sam to Phoenix Memorial Hospital after the most recent events, to a sex-therapy program for children who are believed to have committed serious sexual offenses.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
Now Sam is the child at the center of a well-publicized controversy. He's the nameless boy at Phoenix Memorial who had his penis hooked up to the gizmo and who is fighting it. Hospital officials staunchly defend the use of the device, called a plethysmograph, as a diagnostic tool.
While controversy swirls around Sam and the plethysmograph, the sorry facts of his life have received no mention in current accounts. One of his advocates, Ruth Barr, says with exasperation, "He's had six years of so-called sex therapy and he can't even read or write." She says she often wonders whether Sam is "beyond redemption."
Barr has tried to get Sam returned to his mother. Barr is a volunteer for Victims of Child Abuse Laws--VOCAL--an advocacy group for parents accused of child abuse. Sam was 6 when the Child Protective Services section of the Arizona Department of Economic Security took him away from Wanda C., a west Valley waitress. He's lived in foster homes and institutions ever since. The state removed the little boy from Wanda's home because she confessed to a counselor that when Sam was a toddler she let him touch her genitals on several occasions.
Now attorneys representing the boy are trying to keep therapists from touching his private parts with the plethysmograph. They are arguing that the use of the device is barbaric. Last week Arizona Civil Liberties Union attorneys persuaded an appellate court to order the Maricopa County Juvenile Court to demand that the hospital temporarily halt the use of the device on him. A full hearing to determine if the hospital will be permanently barred from using the device on Sam is scheduled for July 15.
To Ruth Barr, the tragedy is not so much that a child was hooked up to a plethysmograph. The real tragedy, she insists, is that Sam, through no fault of his own, has been away from his family for six years. She believes that Sam would be better off with Wanda--whom Barr believes has been rehabilitated--than with the state.
"The plethysmograph is medieval and horrible and doesn't belong on the face of the Earth," Barr says, "but everyone is focusing on the plethysmograph and not on the child. Let's start thinking about Sam."
And Barr alleges that Sam also has been subjected to a different kind of humiliation--the technique of "four-pointing," or restricting a person by tying his wrists and ankles to a bed. The technique is sometimes practiced by corrections officials on unruly prisoners.
Sam's response to his life has often been to fly into fits of screaming rage, which may explain why Barr says he got the message out to her that he had been "four-pointed."
Hospital officials would not comment on Sam's case, citing confidentiality laws. Marcia Porter, state CPS director, also refused comment. Wanda C., Sam's mother, refused an interview with New Times, saying a judge threatened to throw her in jail if she talked to the press.
wanda c. had plenty to say three years ago, when Sam was 9. She was enraged over the fact that Sam had not been returned to her custody for three years.
She even testified before an Arizona Legislature subcommittee looking into allegations that the state was unnecessarily removing too many children from their homes. The testimony of Wanda and others persuaded the legislators to order CPS to focus on reuniting children with their parents.
The case of Wanda and Sam was as sad and troubling then as it is today.
Wanda was never prosecuted for child abuse. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office explained the decision not to prosecute by saying only that, in general, many such cases lack evidence for successful prosecutions.
According to state records obtained by New Times, Wanda first agreed to counseling after her pediatrician told her in 1986 that she was too protective of Sam, then a 6-year-old. She didn't want him to go to the bathroom alone. She didn't want him to sleep away from her at night.
After a few months, Wanda confessed to a counselor that when Sam was a toddler, she had allowed him to touch, "about ten times," her breasts and "bottom part." Wanda claimed it had been three years since the fondling occurred, but the counselor reported the incident to CPS, which removed Sam from Wanda's home.
Sam pined for his mother and was so depressed he was sent to a hospital after the separation. Doctors prescribed Ritalin, a drug commonly used to subdue hyperactive children. The child still takes the drug, says Ruth Barr. While living in foster homes and institutions, Sam has alternated between anguish over separation from his mother and anger at her.
"I've already got a mom," Sam said in 1989, referring to a foster mother. "A better mom. The best mom I've ever had. And I'm pretty proud of it, too."
From time to time, Sam has told officials damning stories about his mother. Once he said his mother and grandmother, dressed in Halloween costumes, tried to kidnap him from a foster home. On another occasion, he said his mother tried to get him to fondle her in a DES waiting room. Wanda has said those stories are not true, and no witness has ever corroborated those charges of Sam's.
Through the years, Barr has kept track of Sam through indirect means. She says Sam has gotten the word to her that he has been molested in two different foster homes, once by a 16-year-old boy and once by a 27-year-old man.
And then last spring, at a foster home in Mesa, Sam allegedly molested other children.
That is why he was sent by a juvenile court judge to Phoenix Memorial Hospital, which has a program "for children who have committed serious sexual offenses," says Kelly Arnold, a spokesperson for the hospital program.
During the evaluation phase of the program, Sam underwent "penile plethysmography" so that therapists could figure out what sexually aroused the child.
According to Ruth Barr, Sam told Wanda about the test. Wanda told Barr, who, through a lawyer, contacted the ACLU. It was the ACLU that successfully persuaded the Arizona Court of Appeals to temporarily halt the use of the device on Sam.
But the court denied the ACLU's other requests: that Sam's other therapy be stopped and that Sam be removed from the hospital.
Sam is simply too troubled.
Whether Sam's problems were caused by Wanda or whether they stem from the state's six-year custody will probably never be known. For now the long-term future of Sam has taken a back seat to the fight over whether therapists should use a plethysmograph on him. Even before the current fuss, Sam was a lonely and often angry child confused about his future.
"That child is just fought down," Wanda's mother said of Sam in 1990. "He knew he couldn't win. He just quit fighting cause he couldn't fight no more.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.