A Stable Home For Joy?

Where is Joy Johnson? The little "Wednesday's Child," whose thwarted adoption was profiled in last week's New Times, has been moved to Oklahoma by her current foster parents.

The couple who had wanted to adopt her are now asking, is this the "stability" the Arizona Department of Economic Security promised for the child when it fought to leave her in foster care, instead of returning her to their home?

Pauline and Cedric Johnson had Joy in their home for seven months before DES pulled the child out, claiming the couple no longer wanted her. The Johnsons fought back, claiming DES soured the adoption by failing to provide therapy to help Joy overcome the abuse that had blighted her early life. The Johnsons went to court, attempting to regain custody and complete the adoption--an unsuccessful process that took over five months and was concluded in August.

DES insisted in Maricopa County Juvenile Court that the four-year-old child, who had been moved at least six or seven times since becoming a ward of the state when she was fourteen months old, needed stability above all. To return the child to her adoptive home would be just one more disruption, DES argued, noting Joy was finally receiving therapy. Maricopa County Juvenile Court Judge Pro Tem Thomas Jacobs was persuaded by agency claims and ruled in its favor, saying, "Risking the unknown as opposed to continuing the present known situation is not . . . consistent with common sense."

What the judge wasn't told by DES is that the agency was about to wipe out what little stability existed in Joy's life.

Within weeks--possibly within days--of the judge's decision, DES officials approved a request by the foster parents to take Joy with them when they moved away from Arizona, New Times has learned.

The Johnsons are outraged at the agency's action. "How are they going to oversee Joy's welfare when she doesn't even live in the state?" asks Pauline Johnson. "How can they allow her counseling and therapy to be disrupted this way?"

The child is in the Oklahoma City area where, her foster parents tell New Times, DES has approved their request to adopt her. According to sources close to DES, the foster parents have moved at least twice since leaving Arizona in August or September.

It is unclear if the move was approved by the Juvenile Court, which is supposed to authorize such transfers in advance. And Oklahoma child-welfare authorities, who are supposed to provide "courtesy supervision" of the child in her new home, say they have no record of the child or her foster parents.

DES officials refuse to comment on Joy's whereabouts, citing state confidentiality laws. The agency-approved changes, however, contrast starkly with representations DES made to the court in early August.

Judge Jacobs says he cannot comment on the case or confirm or deny that he was aware of the child's move, but he says, "Any intentional withholding of information would be of concern to the court. That's why cases are brought back before the court because there's been a major change of circumstance."

The Johnsons attempted to adopt the child after seeing her on the "Wednesday's Child" television segment. DES officials, who happily united the Johnsons with Joy in August 1988, removed the child in March, claiming the couple no longer wanted her and were not prepared to raise a troubled child. The Johnsons say they had appealed to DES to get help for Joy during most of the seven months she lived with them, but the agency did not provide counseling for the child until after she had been removed from their home.

In August, DES told the court that the foster family met DES licensing requirements and offered a stable environment. The foster parents were "very motivated" to help with the child's therapy, said her counselor, Phoenix psychologist Sheryl W. Harrison.

DES assistant director Marsha Porter acknowledges that it is unusual for Arizona to maintain foster-care placements outside the state, but says it sometimes is done if the agency's plan is to have the child adopted, or kept long-term, by the foster parents. She asserts that several safeguards exist to prevent the state from losing track of a child.

"If the move were to be for more than thirty days, it would be done with the court's prior approval," Porter says. "The move would be recorded through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children and must be approved by the receiving state. DES would maintain jurisdiction but the receiving state would provide courtesy supervision and file reports with us."

It is unclear, however, if either the Maricopa County Juvenile Court or Oklahoma child-welfare authorities are aware of Joy's move. The Johnsons, who are legally entitled to receive all court documents relating to this case, say they've seen none indicating the court was aware of the move or had approved it. New Times questioned Judge Jacobs about the possibility that the court could have approved it without the Johnsons being informed. The judge again refused to discuss the case, saying only "the Attorney General's Office [which represents DES] knows the law on out-of-state travel and knows who needs to receive notification in connection with cases before the court."

Still more disturbing, Oklahoma City child-welfare authorities told New Times they could not find any record of Joy or her foster parents.

Earlier this year, the Oklahoma child-welfare system came under attack in an investigative series by the Tulsa Tribune, which found that agency workers are underpaid, poorly trained and doing a bad job of identifying and tracking abused and neglected children. In one instance, the Tribune found that state workers did not check on a child for eight months after placing it in a foster home.

Last week, the newspaper's findings were validated in a report issued by a state child-abuse commission set up by the Oklahoma legislature.

Joy had lived with these foster parents prior to being placed with the Johnsons, and their earlier attempt to adopt her was rejected by DES. The foster mother said she did not know why they were not approved for adoption earlier. The Johnsons say that during the court hearing, a DES official testified that the foster family was rejected because of their age and the home environment. DES will not comment on what has changed to now make the foster parents acceptable. The foster mother told New Times, "We've got the final adoption papers. This is all over and done with."

Yet, concerns about the foster parents have surfaced since Joy was returned to them. Joy's psychologist was openly uneasy about the foster parents' ability to help Joy overcome her emotional problems. Referring to the couple's assertion that they saw no sign of abuse-related problems in Joy, Harrison wrote, "It is my concern that these behaviors may still be present; however, the current foster parents are either minimizing the seriousness of the behavior and/or not watching for the behavior with as much intensity as the [Johnsons] did."

Cedric Johnson alleges that DES, in returning Joy to the foster parents, brushed off his concerns that the foster parents were uneducated and lacked economic stability.

Joy's psychologist alluded to a similar concern about the family's ability to help Joy learn, noting that the child's language skills are below par. "I would also recommend that this child be placed in a Head Start and/or preschool program, as her language delays may be secondary to environmental deprivation," Harrison said in her report.

Cedric, who was on cordial terms with the foster parents as the Johnsons prepared to adopt Joy, describes them as "an older couple whose only source of income, outside of foster-care payments, is from Social Security and odd jobs the father finds." (As a DES official testified in court, one of the agency's concerns about allowing the foster parents to adopt was that they also provided a home to troubled older boys referred by Boys' Ranch.)

Cedric reports that during the time Joy was living with them, the foster parents moved from a middle-class residential area to a two-bedroom rental unit in a drug- and crime-infested neighborhood. Cedric says he raised concerns about Joy's safety with officials connected to the case, but was told not to worry because the child didn't go outside and the family was looking for another home. He said he'd driven by their former home and noticed that the bicycle they had given Joy was lying abandoned next to the empty house.

The foster mother would not comment on why the family subsequently moved to Oklahoma. "I've been in Arizona for 46 years and I was just ready to move. It didn't have anything to do with Joy," she said. The foster father was reluctant to discuss it further.

The foster mother expressed anger that the Johnsons were still interested in Joy. "If that was me and I'd lost the case, I would just forget about it. They bribed this child. Money don't buy everything." She also was upset at being contacted by a newspaper. "Why are you researching this anyway?" she asked.

The Johnsons say they were shocked to learn that the foster family moved out of the apartment about the time the judge rendered his decision in favor of leaving the child in the foster home. Judge Jacobs would allow no testimony about the couple's fitness to foster-parent Joy, saying that the agency had testified that they met state requirements, and "DES offered no testimony whatever to indicate the foster family's situation was about to change," Cedric Johnson says.

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Kathleen Stanton