THE FAMILY TRAP
Two friends were fishing one day when an infant floated by. One of the fishermen jumped into the water, grabbed the baby and handed it to his friend. Another infant soon floated by. The same fisherman saved her. Then, a whole group of drowning infants floated past. The rescuer again dove into the water, but saw his friend walking away. "What's wrong with you?" he shouted at his pal. "You save those babies," the friend yelled back. "I'm going upstream to see who's throwing them in the river."
@sub:A Little Boy Goes Home
@body:The caseworker picked up the "risk assessment" form and considered the task at hand. Tom Molnar of the state's Child Protective Services agency faced a momentous decision last November 14: Should 9-year-old Brandon Palmer be allowed to live at the Casa Grande home of his parents, Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer?
Molnar had been on the case since the wee hours of November 3. He had been called in after 3-year-old Tajuana Davidson was pronounced dead on arrival at Casa Grande Regional Hospital.
Tajuana had been living with Brandon's parents, the Palmers, as a potential adopted child since that June. Brandon already considered her a sister.
In police parlance, Tajuana's death had been caused by "blunt-force trauma to the head." In layman's language, someone had beaten the hell out of the little girl, breaking her bones and inflicting deep bruises over her 28-pound body. Finally, someone had bashed in her brain.
Born addicted to cocaine, Tajuana suffered from severe developmental disabilities. The Palmers suggested she'd sustained her injuries in a spill off a toilet seat.
But pathologists and police investigators didn't buy that account.
An autopsy showed Tajuana's shoulder blade had been broken days before her death. The scope and seriousness of her more recent injuries also refuted the Palmers' explanation. And Tajuana's low body temperature proved the couple had waited longer to call 911 than they'd said.
Doctors examined Brandon and found no evidence of physical abuse. But the boy was saying little to authorities. He told caseworker Molnar he had a secret. If he spoke up, Brandon explained, the Holy Ghost wouldn't bring his sister back to life, and his parents would go to jail.
Child Protective Services placed Brandon with a relative as investigation of the Palmers continued. For days, the only public mention of Tajuana's passing was in the Casa Grande Dispatch. The newspaper reported November 5 that police considered her death a homicide.
During this time, CPS learned--apparently for the first time--that another child of Cleveland Palmer, a daughter living in California, had once accused him of physically and sexually abusing her. But the alleged attacks had happened years before, and prosecutors had determined a conviction was unlikely.
On November 12, Joquitta Palmer asked CPS to let Brandon return home. Tom Molnar's notes indicate he spoke that day with district program manager Christopher Dixon about the situation.
According to its own guidebook, CPS' goal in all cases "is to keep children safely within their own families." Agency spokesperson Anna Arnold describes what CPS normally does with the sibling of a child who may have been murdered by a parent:
"Initially, I think we would protect that child until we could determine what danger the parent was to the child," Arnold says. "We don't make those decisions by ourselves--we pull in other people like psychiatrists, psychologists. . . . We couldn't just leave the child there, because of the potential for abuse."
But with the approval of his superiors, Molnar told Joquitta Palmer on November 12 that she could pick up Brandon that day after school. She did just that. It was nine days after Tajuana Davidson's murder.
This happened before Molnar had completed his risk assessment of the Palmers and before the agency had conducted an administrative review of the case.
On November 14, a Sunday, Molnar finally completed the assessment. The form he used rates the risks parents might pose to children placed in their care. It examines factors such as stress, parenting skills, recognition of one's problems and cooperation with the agency--a category CPS always considers vital. The caseworker assigns parents or guardians one of four grades for each category--no, low, moderate or high risk to children.
Molnar concluded the Palmers were "no risk" to Brandon concerning these factors:
"No known violence."
"Actively involved in case plan and services."
"No known impairment interferes with the ability to parent."
Molnar marked the Palmers a "low risk" in these areas:
"Some unrealistic expectation/gaps in parenting skills."
"Experiencing recent stresses."
He included a handwritten synopsis: "Parents appear to be responsible for the death of Tajuana Davidson, their adoptive daughter. However, there is no indication that Brandon has suffered abusive treatment from his parents, other than the ordeal he has experienced with the death of his adoptive sister."
Without a hint of irony, Molnar concluded that Cleveland and Joquitta Palmer were, overall, a "low risk" to their son's safety and well-being.
Tajuana Davidson's demise soon became big news statewide, on the heels of massive publicity about 2-year-old China Marie Davis' murder, allegedly at the hands of her Phoenix foster mother.
Agency records reflect CPS' deep concern about the sudden media focus on Tajuana's murder. But the news stories mentioned Brandon Palmer's return home only in passing, if at all, focusing almost exclusively on Tajuana.
The glare of publicity had an immediate effect on Brandon's situation. Within a few days, the agency quietly reversed its decision to reunify him with his parents. It again placed Brandon in a foster home, then allowed him to move in with Joquitta Palmer's sister, where he remains today.
For reasons unclear to law enforcement sources close to the case, no one has been charged in Tajuana Davidson's death. The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office has officially ruled it a homicide.
And no one in authority at CPS is challenging the policy that led the agency to routinely return a young boy to parents strongly suspected of being child murderers.
@sub:The Way Things Are
@body:To the uninitiated, the goings-on at CPS that led to Brandon Palmer's temporary return home might seem puzzling, even bizarre. But those familiar with the state of Arizona's child-welfare system aren't surprised.
Brandon's return home wasn't an isolated mistake. CPS policy and practice is to work aggressively to reunify troubled families in almost all circumstances--sometimes at unfathomable costs to Arizona's children.
No system designed and implemented by humans can guarantee perfection. But under the rubric of "family preservation," CPS continues to give children back to parents who have proven, beyond all doubt, that they are unfit to be any child's guardian.
The severance of parental rights is one of the most drastic measures a government can take. But CPS' reliance on family reunification as a single, generic solution to the problem of child maltreatment strikes many experts as dangerous and irresponsible.
Gary Robbins, a crusading children's attorney now practicing in Flagstaff, recalls only one case in 11 years--a child-torture case--in which CPS' goal was not reunification. "It could be said that CPS requires blood, bruises or broken bones to intervene in a child's life," he says.
"In wife-beating cases," adds deputy Maricopa County attorney Dyanne Greer, a specialist in child-homicide prosecutions, "you get the wife out of the home. Put a kid in the picture and CPS says, 'We must reunify the, quote, sacrosanct, family.' Then they won't force treatment, because Mom and Dad didn't beat the kid up bad enough to kill him."
Shrouded in secrecy, CPS subscribes to the theory that no news is good news. Even law enforcement officials sometimes gain only limited access to case histories.
Material for this story comes from public records, interviews and confidential government reports. In all, New Times researched more than 40 court cases and interviewed 57 people in Arizona and around the nation. Among the findings:
Arizona officials have grossly misinterpreted a federal law that demands "reasonable efforts" be made to reunify troubled families. CPS' attempts to reunify children with parents are obsessive and often futile, not "reasonable" by any definition of the word.
CPS can't say if its policy of reunification-first is working. The agency doesn't track recurrence of abuse in reunified families, even though statistics suggest Arizona is the second-most-dangerous state in the nation for children. "There's no particular incentive to count up your failures," says an expert on the issue. "There's the hope that if you don't gather the data, people won't notice the problem."
Prosecutors in Arizona estimate at least half of the child-murder cases they've filed since 1989 have been committed by parents and guardians with whom CPS had prior contact. That jibes with American Public Welfare Association statistics, which say 42 percent of the 1,300 kids who died last year of abuse had previously been reported to child-welfare agencies.
CPS officials say they return about half the children they remove from parents or guardians within a month. For many kids who do remain in the agency's custody, however, the goal of reunification has meant no roots, one foster home after another and then a return to an abusive, dysfunctional parent.
After more than 18 months in foster care, studies show, a child's chances of adoption diminishes greatly. But Arizona's children often stay in foster care for years, largely because of CPS' reunification goal. When the state fears children are becoming too attached to foster families, caseworkers often order them moved to a new home, hoping to minimize problems associated with returning a child to his or her biological parents.
CPS claims it could lose millions of dollars in federal funding if it stops abiding by the so-called reunification mandate. But the agency's own budget manager says a cutoff is highly unlikely.
Other states are finally backing off their blanket policies of family preservation. California law now says Juvenile Court judges don't even have to consider reunification when a parent or guardian inflicts certain kinds of abuse. In Michigan, the child-welfare system is making quicker decisions on whether to reunify or to sever parental rights--but only after providing parents with intensive preservation services on the front end.
"When the state intervenes in a family's life, that's a pretty strong action to take," says CPS spokesperson Arnold. "I think parents deserve a chance to demonstrate whether they can provide care for their children."
But the agency's policy assumes all parents are innately able to bond and properly care for their children.
If only that were true.
It wasn't until 1962 that child abuse was formally recognized as a serious threat to kids' lives. That's when Dr. Henry C. Kempe wrote The Battered Child Syndrome, which concluded that the family is society's most violent unit.
Kempe and others tied familial abuse to the concept of children as the "property" of a parent. That concept lives on.
"I've heard so many times, 'These are my kids and I'll do what I damned well please with them,'" says Phoenix psychologist Jeffrey Harrison. "How much of a right do you have to provide a poor environment for your child? I don't know, exactly. But we're on kind of a cusp now. Either we're going to protect them or not protect them."
To put it mildly, that has been easier said than done.
"It's obviously preferable that children are raised with their parents," says Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Barry Silverman, a Juvenile Court veteran now working in Domestic Relations.
"But a tension has been built into the law--we want people to be raised by their parents instead of by strangers. But what if you put both parents together and don't get one good one?
"Every CPS case shouldn't have a goal of a return home. Those kind of competing things just drive us nuts."
Silverman's point gives rise to a difficult question. We now live in a nation in which there are more kids than there are good homes. Is it better to return children to abusive homes or to let them languish in foster care?
Both liberals and conservatives prefer to err on the side of "family preservation"--which, in practical terms, has meant reunification-first, right or wrong.
Conservatives want to limit the state's intervention into the private sphere of family life, with savings to taxpayers. Liberals want to support families and children they view as needy or disadvantaged.
The Clinton administration has jumped on the bandwagon, appropriating $1 billion last year for "family preservation" programs. But little of that sum will go toward research to assess how effective the programs are.
"Reunification is wonderful if it results in reunifying," says Kay Ekstrom, president of the Phoenix-based Christian Family Care Agency. "And anybody looking out for the child's best interest starts with trying to fix the family of origin.
"But what if you have to push that mom for months and months and months, and she has no motivation for getting better? She just wants to get rid of the kids. Even then, we see case after case where children are returned to overly dangerous situations."
Or, says Dr. Erik Benjamin, the children wind up in the numbing limbo of foster care.
"Caseworkers constantly go back and offer parents another chance because they have to," says Benjamin, section chief of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital. "Or the parents will show up impulsively and say, 'I want my kid back.' Then they back out and do something self-destructive. The kids are the ones who suffer."
Public sentiment on the issue blows like a fickle wind, depending on the newest CPS horror story.
A few years ago, the going theme in the media and at the Arizona legislature went like this: State caseworkers are akin to Nazi storm troopers, raiding homes and snatching children from parents falsely accused of child abuse. Some, but certainly not all, of the horror stories were true. Says Phoenix attorney Ann Haralambie, an experienced hand in children's cases: "A lot of people really did abuse their children and just lied about the circumstances to the legislators. I've sat in hearings where my own clients have gotten up and talked about what happened, and I knew it wasn't true."
Arizona politicos responded to the tales by convening new committees and talking loudly.
Recently, the general sentiment has shifted. Sniffing a change in public opinion, legislators who once blasted CPS for breaking up families now howl a different lament. In the wake of the Tajuana Davidson and China Marie Davis murders, the state is now being accused of doing too little to prevent foster-home tragedies.
(Actually, the National Family Violence Survey says foster parents are no more likely to hurt children than biological parents.)
The result at CPS of the opinion shifts has been defensive social work that continues to harm children. Mindless reunification is among the most damaging of these defensive practices.
In the end, the state's child-welfare system protects itself first. Variable political winds have created an environment in which a kind of bureaucratic hypnosis--Tom Molnar's slipshod risk-assessment of the Palmers is an example--may flourish.
Even nationally known family-preservation advocate Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform admits the emphasis on automatic reunification is wrong.
"When an agency is asked, 'Why did you return that child to that obviously unfit mother?', are they going to answer, 'My caseworker was an idiot'? Or are they going to say, 'It's a mandate'?" Wexler asks. "If you're a bureaucrat, what's the safest answer?"
The "safest answer" has resulted in a system in which Arizona children may be held hostage by something the state calls a "family."
"The mandate of reunification does not consider the large number of parents who have demonstrated their inability to parent over time," says county Juvenile Court Judge John Foreman.
"I'm thinking of people with chronic mental illness, chronic drug problems, chronic problems with the law. The most sensible thing for kids is to be in families capable of properly parenting and loving them."
@sub:So Many Chances
@body:Flagstaff police officer Paul Langston responded to reports of a disturbance at the Crown Hotel at about 1 a.m. on September 1, 1988. In a parking lot there, he saw an obviously inebriated man and a woman, standing face to face.
"They were hugging very closely," Langston later told an attorney for the woman, Kathy Begay. "And there was a small child between the two of them. . . . They weren't trying to keep the baby warm. They had had an argument and it appeared they were trying to make up. The child was unable to breathe, so I was trying to get them apart."
It was a damp, chilly night in the northern Arizona town, the temperature in the upper 40s. The six-pound newborn was clad only in a diaper and a tee shirt. He felt cold to the policeman's touch.
Baby Jessie was four days old.
Langston ordered Jessie's father, Julius Kissinger, to wrap his coat around the infant. The couple was arrested. Police took Jessie to Flagstaff Medical Center, where his temperature registered less than 96 degrees. Hospital records indicate if the infant had been outdoors much longer, he probably would have died.
Regardless, CPS reunited Begay with her two children, Jessie and 3-year-old Chad, after her release from jail pending trial.
Begay, then 22, pleaded guilty to child abuse. But a Coconino County judge treated her kindly, placing her on probation for 18 months. (Julius Kissinger went to prison on unrelated charges.)
Begay gave birth to her third child, James, in late 1989. But new troubles soon cropped up.
In March 1990, Begay watched in an alcoholic haze as a Labrador retriever mauled Jessie--by then almost 18 months old--at a Flagstaff city park. Jessie survived his second brush with death.
Prosecutors revoked Begay's probation, and the judge who had cut her a break in 1989 ordered her to prison on the original child-abuse charge.
A CPS report said Begay's mother had agreed to care for her three children "until Kathleen completes her time at DOC. . . . It is this worker's recommendation to close this case. Children are doing good!"
For nine months, Begay was one of the 1,000 or so other females in the state's penal system. About 70 percent of those women claim dependents, says Department of Corrections statistics ace Daryl Fischer.
Like most of her fellow inmates, Begay expected to be reunited someday with her children. "My kids are very important to me," she told a DOC counselor in June 1990, "and I need to be out there with them."
Toward that end, Begay built a tidy rsum while behind bars, successfully completing parenting and substance-abuse classes. Records show she was reunited with her kids upon her release from prison in early 1991.
Begay enrolled at a Flagstaff dental academy and rented an apartment. But CPS caseworkers investigated new allegations of child abuse and neglect involving Begay within weeks.
On May 30, 1991, she dropped off baby James at a Flagstaff day-care center. The child was burning with fever, but the day-care people couldn't locate Begay at the dental academy.
A CPS report said it was the second time in a month she had taken a very ill child to the center, then couldn't be tracked down.
CPS caseworker Nancy Stiver talked turkey when the pair hooked up.
"I told her," Stiver wrote, "that if she could not be a responsible parent for her children, she should consider having her mother raise them. I also told her that if this office received another referral about her inability to be a responsible parent, that we would have to consider different consequences than just a visit to my office."
It was an idle threat. Keeping with its policy--reunify first, ask questions later--CPS allowed James to return to his mother after a doctor treated him. Stiver and her supervisor, Ann Davis, soon recommended the agency close the case:
"Children are at the grandmother's at this time and no services are needed."
Pregnant yet again in October 1991, Begay went to a Flagstaff doctor's office for a prenatal checkup. She left her three children in the waiting room as the doctor examined her.
A nurse observed that 1-year-old James had numerous bruises and scabs on his face and head. She called police and CPS.
CPS immediately took James to a Flagstaff doctor, who confirmed the baby was a victim of serious child abuse, even beyond the visible wounds.
Five months before, James had been in the 50th percentile of height and weight for his age. Now he'd dropped into the 5th percentile for height and weight--an indication of slow starvation.
An eyewitness told Flagstaff police investigators she'd seen Begay beat the child badly at a birthday party a few weeks earlier. At the party, the source said, Begay had grabbed James, yanked him over to a couch and kicked him several times. She'd then grabbed him by the head, punched him, called him "a piece of shit" and left.
The apparent reason for the outburst? James had urinated on himself.
Flagstaff police detective Mike Cicchinelli interviewed Begay, who initially denied wrongdoing, blaming James' injuries on her two older boys and rotten luck.
"He got hit by a door," Begay told the detective. "I didn't punch him in the face."
After a time, Cicchinelli got in Begay's face.
"He is not being taken care of, not being fed and/or loved," Cicchinelli told her. "Do you understand what that means? You're out of a job, you've got three little kids to take care of, you're pregnant, you're in a bind. But there is never any reason to beat a child in the manner that you beat this kid.
"And this kid almost died, okay, and that would be the next step."
Begay finally owned up to hurting her third child.
"I have a lot of depression, uh, stress," she said. "I probably did lose control . . . I need help."
Cicchinelli arrested Kathy Begay on charges of felony child abuse.
She spent 18 days in jail, then was released to await trial. Although James was now in foster care, CPS and Coconino County authorities allowed Begay to live with her other two children--previous victim Jessie and his older brother, Chad.
Begay gave birth to her fourth child, Charleton, before her trial in early 1992. A jury then convicted her of beating James.
Before being sentenced, Begay told a probation officer she'd enrolled in new parenting classes. "She is working on becoming more careful with her children," the probation officer wrote, "and wants to learn how to take better care of herself and her children."
Unmoved, Judge H. Jeffrey Coker ordered a nine-year prison term.
CPS indicated it would ask a juvenile judge to legally sever the parental ties between James and his parents. (James' father was never in the picture.)
Because of Arizona's privacy laws, it's uncertain if the agency completed its effort. James is now said to be living with Begay's sister in Winslow. Begay's three other children are living with their grandmother.
DOC records show Kathy Begay will be eligible for parole in late 1996, at the age of 31. It isn't known what relationship she will be allowed to have with her offspring after her release.
@body:The idea behind the federal law that remains the linchpin for Arizona's reunification-first policy was sound: to keep families intact whenever possible. Before 1980, child-welfare agencies around the nation would often snatch children from their parents simply because the family was poor. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 sought to change that. At its core, the law decreed: Fewer kids should be in foster care, and when they are, it should be for shorter stays. The law's drafters hoped it would stem "foster-care drift"--which neither frees children for adoption nor returns them to their homes.
Federal law previously had provided stronger financial incentives for states to use foster care, rather than finding permanent placements for children in their custody and control. Congress hoped that by providing intensive, short-term counseling and other support systems to families in crisis, far more children would be able to stay at home than before.
The new law also made it more difficult for judges to terminate parental rights, even in cases with solid evidence of ongoing abuse. At the same time, it instructed states to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify biological parents and their children.
The feds didn't define "reasonable efforts," but said that if reunification didn't take place within 18 months, Plan B--preferably adoption--should go into effect.
This carrot-and-stick approach, Congress reasoned, would be something that motivated states and parents: The feds could withhold funding if a state didn't make undefined "reasonable efforts" at reunifying troubled families. And, conversely, the feds would provide fiscal incentives for states to enact reforms in child-welfare practices.
Though the concept behind the ambitious law may have been sound, its drafters now say they didn't reckon on what would happen in the 1980s.
"I believe that law is outmoded today," says George Miller, a California congressman and one of its sponsors. "Drug abuse and child abuse have simply overwhelmed the ability of the authorities and the resources of the best child-welfare workers to respond."
That's true, says Patrick Murphy, the Cook County, Illinois, public guardian, an attorney for 31,000 abused and neglected children.
"I think the types of kids coming to the system are much more abused and neglected than they were when the law went into effect," Murphy says. "And the underclass and drug culture have increased the number of children in foster care."
Ironically, Murphy was one of the 1980 law's biggest proponents.
"This was another one of those liberal programs that people like myself pushed which has ended up hurting the very people we wanted to help," he says. "I think that it behooves us to step aside and say, 'Wait a second, we made a mistake. Now let's correct it.'"
But the flaws in the federal law have not been corrected. And although Congress had no such intention, the law has provided a fallback position for child-welfare agencies asked about their reunification-first policies.
"We have to make those 'reasonable efforts' to reunify, period, or we can lose millions because of the federal mandate," says CPS spokesperson Anna Arnold.
That's the party line of child-welfare agencies around the nation. But that's not how state Department of Economic Security budget manager Michael Nixon sees it. Nixon says Arizona likely will not lose the crucial federal funds--about $22 million last year--under any circumstances, even if the state amends its reunification-first policy.
"I obviously can't speak for the federal government," Nixon says, "but from their perspective, taking money away from a state . . . it would do more damage to children than it would help. If they tell us we have to correct something, we correct it, and that's it."
Family-reunification proponent Richard Wexler calls the "reasonable effort" mantra absurd.
"You hear that all the time," he says. "It's balderdash. The law doesn't require ridiculous efforts. And there is no law anywhere that requires the return of a child to an unsafe home. But the alternative to 'we returned the child because the law made us do it' is 'we returned this child because we screwed up.' They are not going to tell you that."
@sub:Sex Scandal in Mesa
@body:Nearly everyone who lived in Arizona in 1991 recalls the Mesa Police Department sex scandal.
Reports that July described the arrests of highly decorated Mesa cop Dick Elliget and his wife, Laurie, on charges related to sexual misconduct with children.
A grand jury indicted Dick on felony charges of sexually exploiting a 16-year-old girl. His "exploitation" included sexual molestation and taking graphic nude photographs of the girl and his wife together.
Laurie, a mother of four, faced one count of child abuse.
The Elliget case broke after the girl confided in her aunt, the wife of another Mesa cop. The girl said she'd come forward because Dick Elliget was starting the seduction process with her 13-year-old sister.
Later, it became known that Dick Elliget had arranged for numerous Mesa cops, including command-level officers, to have sex with his wife. He had kept a sex diary of these extramarital encounters as tools for potential blackmail.
The investigation revealed Elliget had looked on as a 14-year-old neighbor boy had engaged in sexual intercourse with his wife, then in her mid-30s. News accounts quoted Dick Elliget's lawyer as saying the teenage boy and girl had "consented" to the series of acts.
But the public didn't know until a November 1991 New Times story that the 16-year-old victim was the natural daughter of Dick and Laurie Elliget.
The girl told the newspaper: "I gave my Mom a chance before I turned my Dad in. I said, 'Help me, Mom, you know he's touching me, he's molesting me. Do you want me to spell it out for you?' My mom totally turned her back on her kids."
CPS placed the two older girls in foster care for a time. Grossly overweight and hooked on junk food, the two youngest children, then aged 9 and 7, stayed with relatives.
A CPS case plan dated September 24, 1991--two months after Laurie Elliget's arrest--listed as its goal: "Return [children] to mother within six months and/or reassess at staffing to be held on or before March 24, 1992."
Remarkably, the agency set its goal--reunification--while Laurie Elliget's criminal case and possible prison term were still pending.
"When we say 'Return to Parent,' that doesn't mean the child is going to go back to the parent right then," says CPS spokesperson Anna Arnold. "It's just an overall goal to try and assess the parent's ability to provide care and get treatment, because a lot of parents go into treatment."
CPS case manager Barbara Guenther expressed concerns in a confidential report about the "younger children's inappropriate sexual behavior, frequent requests for medication, reports of neglect [and] possible learning disabilities."
She noted Laurie would have to "learn and demonstrate appropriate parenting skills . . . and resolve issues of abuse in the home," among other tasks, before reunification with her children could occur.
Maricopa County prosecutors allowed Dick Elliget to plea-bargain to a charge that could have freed him from prison in less than seven years. But Superior Court Judge Steven Sheldon rejected the soft bargain and sentenced the disgraced cop to 14 years in prison.
Laurie Elliget pleaded guilty to a child-abuse charge with a maximum potential prison sentence of less than two years. Even after her guilty plea, Laurie insisted her daughter had initiated the pornographic photo sessions.
"This scenario is met with skepticism and further underscores the need for the court to provide intervention and monitoring of Mrs. Elliget," county probation officer Sandra Lewis-George wrote in a presentence report that recommended a short jail term.
By the time of her April 1992 sentencing, Laurie Elliget was making a good impression by attending parenting classes and one-on-one counseling sessions. CPS allowed her to visit her two youngest children twice per week at their therapist's office.
"Mrs. Elliget is not seen as a risk to her children," Laurie's onetime counselor, Linda Reichert, told probation officer Lewis-George. "She is not likely to reoffend on them herself, nor is she likely to become established in a relationship with another man."
Judge David Grounds sentenced Laurie Elliget to three years' probation. Not long after that, CPS reunified Laurie with three of her four kids. It's not known if the oldest daughter--the Elligets' main victim--has reconciled with her mother.
Last month, Laurie and her attorney, Alan Simpson, appeared on the syndicated Montel Williams Show. She told Williams she'd had sex with more than three dozen men--including many policemen--at her husband's request.
"It was brainwashing," she said. "I didn't enjoy it . . . I was always afraid that I'd pick up the wrong person."
Attorney Simpson said Laurie had "jumped through hoops" to get her kids back, and they are now at the center of her life. That drew applause from the studio audience.
Laurie avoided describing exactly what she had done to get into trouble with the law until host Williams pressed a little.
"The daughter was just once," Simpson explained, referring to the number of parent-daughter pornographic photo sessions. "Unbeknownst to Laurie, her husband was grooming [their daughter]."
But Simpson didn't stop. If the girl was going to pose for nude pictures, he said, "Wouldn't it be better if her father took them?"
Laurie Elliget nodded.
The audience gasped.
A few started booing.
Williams cut to a commercial.
If their bosses knew what they were up to, they could lose their jobs. But they want to tell their stories, stipulating only that they won't discuss specific cases and must be given pseudonyms when quoted in print.
Between them, they have 41 years' experience in the child-welfare business. Each of them is frustrated on several levels--with the job, with the employer and with the public for thinking the worst of them even when they've done their best. The caseworkers admit to having a siege mentality.
Jerry quit as a CPS supervisor a few years ago, and is working in another capacity with the state. He recalls his first days with the agency almost wistfully.
"I was the original white knight, gonna save the world," says Jerry in a round-table discussion at the rear of a Tempe coffee house. "After a while, I guess, I just got burned out by the whole thing."
One reason, Jerry says, was CPS' aim of reunifying children with all but Arizona's most troubled parents.
"I was part of the problem; we're all part of it," Jerry says, as his former colleagues nod vigorously. "I could cite you chapter and verse about times when I went with the regs [regulations] instead of my heart, and it was a mistake."
The discussion turns to comments made in a separate interview by Juvenile Court Judge John Foreman, who has a reputation as a staunch pro-child jurist.
Said Foreman: "There are lots of cases where I have said, 'Let's not Mickey Mouse around. There is no way this family is ever going to get itself back together.' In a lot of cases, there was never any family in the first place. They [caseworkers] look at me, bow their head and walk out. I hope some of them think about it."
A soft-spoken caseworker named Joyce says she does think about it--constantly.
"A lot of us have families ourselves, and we know how hard things can be," she says. "But there's a line somewhere between a momentary lapse in judgment and a pattern of abuse and neglect. Most of us intuitively know when it's been crossed."
Elaine says her job has its rewarding moments. But her upbeat mood lasts only a moment.
"It's good sometimes," she says, "like when you see a family trying hard to get it together, making strides. But it's such an uphill struggle at work that I can smell burnout in my future, too."
Everyone chuckles. The three current caseworkers earn less than $30,000 per year, and work long hours under unceasing pressure.
A portion of an interview with Mary Beth Seader, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based National Council for Adoption, is read to the caseworkers: "That Arizona can't tell you how many reunified families go back into the system is typical. They don't want to be held accountable. They're pushing this reunification thing, and they've got nothing to support it. And they use confidentiality and public ignorance as a shield against criticism."
Elaine takes a long drag on her cigarette.
"That's very true," she says, "and we all know it. But people come at us from all angles---[either] we're taking kids out like the Gestapo or we're blind to abuse and neglect. I've heard parents whose cases I know personally go to the legislature and lie through their teeth. And I've had to take it."
The group is talked out after almost two hours. Jerry--pleased to say he's a former CPS employee--gets the last word.
"At CPS, it's crisis mentality at all times," he says. "Supervisors, including me, worried about their butts, caseworkers wondering constantly when the roof was gonna cave in. Nonstop bullshit."
@body:On March 12, 1991, Phoenix police responded to a 911 call reporting that an infant was choking. What they found at the home of sisters Adela and Ada Arispe was heart-wrenching.
Two-month-old Richard Freddie Arispe, the youngest of Adela's four children, was dead. An autopsy showed he had zero-percent body fat and weighed four ounces less than he had at birth. There were deep, red marks on the infant's head, arm and leg.
Hospital records showed the baby had been born addicted to cocaine, and that he'd never been treated by a doctor after his birth.
"Home" was a ramshackle, one-bedroom dwelling on West Monroe. The Arispe sisters, then in their late 20s, lived there with the 11 children they had between them--Adela's four (before Richard died) and Ada's seven.
The refrigerator was empty. One reason, Adela admitted, was that she'd sold her food stamps for crack cocaine during and after her pregnancy.
CPS took David to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from "nutritional neglect." The infant had gained three ounces during his four months of life.
Police arrested the Arispe sisters on child-abuse charges. News of Richard's agonizing death horrified the Valley. But it shouldn't have startled those in the child-protection system who knew of the sisters.
Adela had been the subject of CPS investigations since 1986. Before Richard, she had given birth to two other cocaine-addicted children. The agency had also investigated Ada for child abuse and neglect six times since she first gave birth at the age of 20. Ada's seven children were by three men, and she was pregnant again by a fourth man.
Ada had once started parenting classes at the urging of CPS, but soon dropped out and failed to follow other directives. But the agency took no substantive actions against her. Ada told police that the oldest child, a 9-year-old girl, looked after the others while she and sister Adela were out partying. She insisted she had taught the children not to go into the kitchen without an adult. Kitchens can be dangerous, she said.
Hardened county prosecutors were especially sickened by the Arispe sisters.
"You look at what happened and you say to yourself, 'Why didn't someone--another family member, CPS, anyone--do something?'" says deputy county attorney Dyanne Greer, who prosecuted the women. "But nonaction seems to be the norm in these cases."
Greer points out that about half of the 15 or so child homicides she's prosecuted have been committed by parents or guardians with previous CPS contact. That estimate holds up around the state, says Kathleen Mayer, a Pima County prosecutor who is also on that county's Child Fatality Review Board.
Ada pleaded guilty to a charge of felony child abuse in late 1991. She spoke with a probation officer before sentencing.
"She hopes the court . . . includes participation in parenting skills, as she feels she needs it," the officer's report said. "She wants to be reunited with her children, wants a different relationship with her children."
A friend of Ada's told the officer, "To the best of my knowledge, she is a very nice lady and she is very good with kids, and she has a lot of patients with them."
The ironic misspelling may have been unintentional.
Phoenix police detective Larry Addington took a different tack. "The only reason the victim [David] lived was because the nephew died," Addington said.
That echoed the sentiments of probation officer Laura Brobst.
"There is no way this writer can imagine the suffering this victim experienced," she wrote, in recommending a prison term. "Ms. Arispe has been afforded the opportunity to change her behavior and reunite with her children via services offered through CPS, yet has failed to take advantage of them. . . . She is a risk to the welfare of her children."
Ada failed to appear for sentencing on December 30, 1991. Police arrested her the following month for driving with a suspended license. She said she'd "experienced bad dreams that something will happen to her children" and had decided to seek a permanent residence for them while on the lam. (CPS had taken custody of her brood.)
In a lenient mood, Judge Robert Hertzberg sentenced Ada to one year in jail for allowing her son David to nearly starve to death.
Now it was sister Adela's turn.
County prosecutors had wanted Adela Arispe convicted of murdering her newborn, Richard. But there were problems. Pathologists listed the cause of death as bronchopneumonia, a condition that can lead to an impaired immune system. It was murder by omission, a tough sell.
A jury convicted Adela in June 1992 of reckless child abuse.
CPS caseworkers told probation officer Diane Knuepfer that Adela's three surviving children were living with their natural father's parents. The children were said to be doing well. But Knuepfer did not preclude the chance that Adela may someday be reunited with her surviving children.
"Adela should learn necessary parenting skills in order to adequately care for her children," Knuepfer's report concluded.
Judge Peter D'Angelo sentenced Adela to ten years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in September 1996, at the age of 31.
Prison officials ask incoming inmates to describe, in writing, how they wound up behind bars. Some of those descriptions fill pages. Adela Arispe's handwritten account is three lines long: "My baby had pneumonia. I never took him to the doctor, and he died in March 91. So they got me on child abuse."
Shortly after Adela's conviction, her sister Ada escaped from the work-furlough program at the Maricopa County Jail. Authorities have yet to find her. CPS officials say the law prevents them from revealing who has the care and control of her children, who now number eight.
@body:The mothers sit in a circle behind school desks, listening intently to their teacher. Sandra Hagen is speaking about the "art" of parenting. She is soothing, low-key, direct, approachable.
Some of the women are shy, and prefer to concentrate on jotting down what they're hearing. Others gab about their own experiences as children and then as parents. They recall some good times, but dwell more on the bad and the ugly.
Many say their parents beat them severely as youngsters. In turn, some of these women say they have taken out their own frustrations and failures on their offspring. Hagen warns them there will be no quick fixes here. The women nod in agreement.
Hagen asks her students to choose three crayons with colors that match their moods. She instructs them to draw pictures that represent their feelings at the moment.
Ginger Thompson, a slight, pale-white woman in her late 20s, starts to draw with her selected colors--pink, yellow and green. Her vision is serene, a friendly sun draping a big tree dotted with pink and yellow foliage.
Another woman has taken a darker approach: Her drawing is more abstract, with purple and magenta arrows going in incomplete circles. Hagen shows the two drawings to the class of 15. She speaks of the conflicting emotions apparent in the latter's artistic effort. Imagine coming home one day and taking out all this confusion on your child, she says.
"It's not what you say to your children . . ." she tells the class, then pauses for a moment.
They know the drill.
"It's how you say it," they chime in.
Ginger's drawing evokes a far different response. The pastoral scene reminds Hagen of going on picnics and of laughing children.
"If you really want to do it, you can apply yourself and do it," Ginger says. "I'm going to be an overachiever."
It's where she's going to be an overachiever that's shocking. Ginger and the other women are prisoners at the Maricopa County Jail, awaiting the proceedings in their criminal cases.
Almost all of the women are locked up on drug-related offenses. Only five raise their hands when asked if they are currently in the CPS system.
But Ginger Thompson stares up at the ceiling before she reveals her crime.
"Uh, I killed my kid," she finally says, betraying little emotion. She's referring to one-month-old Chelsea Thompson, who died in west Phoenix last June after suffering a fractured skull, broken ribs and numerous bruises.
A single mother, Ginger explains she had been fighting severe postpartum depression on the fatal night. Her newborn just wouldn't stop crying, and something bad happened. She claims no memory of hurting Chelsea, but does recall shaking the sobbing infant.
At a hearing scheduled a few days after the class, Ginger says, she's going to plead no contest to second-degree murder and guilty to child abuse. A prison term of 15 years without possibility of parole awaits her. Her only child--she previously gave up another child for adoption--is dead.
Why in the world is she taking a parenting class?
"God willing, I hope to have another," she replies softly.
Parenting classes are a key component in Arizona's reunification-first policy. That Ginger Thompson was allowed to participate proves the program welcomes all comers, and no one argues that the classes harm anyone. But how much they can help truly troubled parents is open to debate.
"The classes can never hurt you," says Flagstaff attorney Gary Robbins. "But sometimes, they're like taking aspirin or vitamin C when a bone should be set. For a person who has killed a child, parenting classes aren't going to be of much help."
Juvenile Court Commissioner Chris Wotruba says she's concerned that some consider parenting classes a panacea.
"You can't spoon-feed the parents every step of the way," she says, referring to parenting classes and the myriad other parent-assistance organizations sanctioned by CPS. "Once those services are withdrawn, those parents sometimes aren't any better off than they were before CPS and the courts got involved."
Some involved in running the parenting programs, such as Parents Anonymous of Arizona teacher Sandra Hagen, are keenly aware of that. Hagen keeps her sights low, simply hoping her classes provide troubled parents a seed for change.
"We never give up, ever, until they say, 'Get out of our face,'" Wieland says. "There is very little we can do at that point. But if they are still motivated, we don't give up. And CPS has that same attitude."
To prove his point, Wieland says 95 percent of the parents who come through Valle del Sol's doors are reunified with their children. But he can't say how many of those parents reabuse their kids and end up back in the system.
"You've got to be careful what you call success," he concedes, "because sometimes you're pleased as punch that they are sitting in the class."
Phoenix children's attorney Sheilah Lavelle looks askance at the child-welfare system's infatuation with parenting classes.
"You give these people therapy," she says, "and they go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or NA [Narcotics Anonymous] for a couple of months and, by golly, they're wonderful. We've got parents of the year. Many times, they are more interested in getting these kids back home just as fast as possible regardless of whether anything has really changed."
Sandra Hagen often ends her parenting classes by reminding students about The Wizard of Oz. At its heart, she tells them, the famous tale is one of self-empowerment. Each of the characters--the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, Dorothy, even the Wizard himself--had the power to change, just like they, as parents, have.
"If you leave here with a little bit of knowledge," she concludes, "it will be like a starting point. It's like another chance. I hope and wish you'll be okay."
@sub:A State of Denial
@body:The State of Arizona recently was dragged kicking and screaming into a case--we'll call it the "Case of the Four Boys"--that illustrates its institutional inertia. Initially, the state declined to file paperwork to remove the boys from a risky environment. CPS belatedly acknowledged the danger. However, instead of arguing on the boys' behalf, the agency went all the way to the state Court of Appeals in an attempt to do nothing.
Phoenix attorney Paul Theut saw it as an open-and-shut case.
"These children needed emergency care," he told county Juvenile Court Judge Pro Tem Laura Estay last December 1. "The state has the resources. We need the state's action, not inaction."
In this instance, CPS tried to leave bad enough alone in the face of compelling evidence that intervention was proper and necessary. And after the agency finally decided to get involved, it still didn't want the cost and burden of litigating it.
Last year, a Juvenile Court judge appointed Theut as legal guardian for an 11-year-old boy in a delinquency proceeding. Theut learned the boy has three brothers, ages 10 years, 18 months and 7 months. CPS records indicate the two older boys were usually unsupervised and uncared-for.
Each of the four has a different father, none of whom is currently involved with the mother. Records indicate the mom is a drug addict.
Theut asked a CPS caseworker if the children qualified under an Arizona law that defines a "dependent" child as: "One in need of proper and effective parental care and control and has no parent or guardian, or one who has no parent or guardian willing to exercise or capable of exercising such care and control."
The caseworker said the four boys were dependent, in her eyes. But CPS hadn't filed a dependency petition because her supervisor hadn't felt it necessary.
At an October 1 hearing, Theut told Judge Estay about the dire situation. Estay appointed Theut guardian for all four boys and authorized him to file a dependency petition within 48 hours.
The judge immediately placed the two older boys in the custody of relatives and ordered CPS to take temporary custody of the two babies.
Three months passed. An investigation showed the 18-month-old was with his father, who said he was afraid the government would take the baby.
The mother went to Estay's court on December 1 prepared to fight the dependency allegations. By now, CPS agreed the four children should be found "dependent" and made wards of the court.
But assistant attorney general Aimee Burr argued it wasn't the state's job to litigate the dependency.
"We will cooperate with Mr. Theut at all costs," Burr told Estay. "We'll supply services to the mother, to the fathers, to the children. . . . But we don't feel that it should be the burden of [CPS] to bring this matter to trial."
Estay couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"This is a classic dependency," she said. "I have a [CPS] caseworker who agrees. We're basically spending county money on an attorney to do the work of the state agency that is mandated by law."
The judge ordered the Attorney General's Office substituted for Theut. Undaunted, the state took the matter, on an emergency basis, to the Arizona Court of Appeals. But in a 3-0 vote issued on April 5, the appellate court sided with Estay and Theut against the state.
"This state recognizes that children are not property of their parents," Judge E.G. Noyes Jr. wrote. "On the contrary, Arizona recognizes that children as persons have special needs and rights which are protected by law. One of those rights is the right to effective and proper parental control and care. . . ."
As for the state's refusal to litigate on behalf of the four boys, Noyes continued:
"[CPS] asks for a ruling that would, in effect, force the Juvenile Court to pay private attorneys with county funds to provide legal services for children that the state is responsible for providing with its own attorneys."
Noyes ended by citing another Arizona appellate case.
"A child is entitled to have his or her basic needs cared for," the judges in the earlier case had written. "If the parent fails to furnish these needs, the state may and should act on behalf of the child."
A postscript: The two oldest boys have been reunited with their mother. The two youngest are living with relatives.
@body:Mary Ann Ulichny and her husband, Michael, took in 13 children during a quarter-century of foster-care parenting. The Tucson couple was a child-welfare success story--caring, thoughtful, safe.
They didn't do it for the money, which was and is minimal. They did it because they love kids. But the Ulichnys say they've had it.
"No more foster kids for us," says Mary Ann, in such a way that leaves the door open just a crack. "There are families willing and able to change. But there are so many that do not and will not. You wouldn't believe the effort CPS goes to to try and rehabilitate these families, even when it's completely hopeless."
The Ulichnys are among the state's 2,000 or so licensed foster-care parents. He's the acting chief of the Tucson Police Department. She's a housewife. The couple has raised four children of their own.
It pains the Ulichnys that a onetime foster daughter--whom they had planned to adopt before CPS reunited her with her biological parents--is now abusing her own daughter.
"It happened because she was taken from us at a time that was very vulnerable to her and returned to a situation that didn't work," Mary Ann says. "Within a week, the girl was beaten and thrown out of her house and put back in the system. But we never knew that for a long time. She's now doing exactly the same thing her mother did to her."
The Ulichnys took on the most troubled children: One child had been raped by his grandfather. Another had been physically assaulted by his alcoholic father. All came from families that defined the word "dysfunctional."
But Mary Ann says it didn't bother her when foster kids would ask when they could go home to their real parents.
"Of course they want to go home," she says. "They always feel if they had done something a little differently, been a little quieter, been a better kid, none of these things would have happened. If they go back and they're just a little better, everything will be okay. But it doesn't happen that way."
The Ulichnys know firsthand of CPS' tireless efforts to try to reunify broken-down biological families.
"I hesitate to call them parents, because that implies they parent," Mary Ann says. "They reproduce. That's nasty of me, but it's true. And once a child is removed, services are put in place for the parents, ad nauseam."
The irony that CPS is named Child Protective Services, not Parent Protective Services, has not escaped the couple's notice.
Mary Ann tells the wrenching tale of one child trapped in the foster-care system for far too long, then unfortunately returned to her natural parents.
The girl had been in the system for more than two years when the state placed her with the Ulichnys. At one point--after she'd bounced from relatives to group homes to foster homes--CPS planned to seek severance of her mom's and dad's parental rights.
But, Mary Ann says, the girl insisted she wanted to be with her family. A juvenile judge then ordered CPS to arrange another round of parenting and counseling classes.
The girl returned to her natural parents after about four years in foster care. Within six weeks, however, police responded to reports that the girl's father was battering her and her mother.
A court injunction ordered him out of the home. Without his financial support, Mary Ann says, the girl's mother has turned to prostitution to support her drug habit. Now 15, the girl has dropped out of school and is seeking a place to live.
Things weren't always so relentlessly grim. When the Ulichnys started foster parenting in the mid-1960s, Mary Ann says, a family in crisis was one lacking money or one whose kids were running a bit wild.
Everything's changed now.
"I want you to understand that this doesn't hurt because I have a need to mother," she says. "It hurts to see the child go back home and know that nothing has changed. That nothing has changed.
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