Fostering Sexual Abuse

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She did not attend any of the court proceedings related to Phil's attacks on Vanessa.

"For years, I've lived in a vacuum," she says. "I never pushed to find out what happened when he was prosecuted and sent away. . . . Why would he come into my house and do these things?"

Maybe, she concedes, she is in some sort of denial.
Despite their divergent views of Phil, Vanessa and her grandmother are devoted to each other.

Vanessa says she won't let her grandmother's belief in Phil's innocence get between them. Instead, Vanessa tries not to remember what happened when she was little. If she does, she says, she feels as if "no one is taking my side."

Sometimes she thinks about killing herself.
"She's a little girl who has gone through a lot," her grandmother says. "And she's done it alone."

In November 1996, Shawn was a happy 12-year-old. He had received four "Excellent Conduct Awards" from his school for his good behavior. But there was a problem. Shawn's teacher didn't like the way he smelled. She called CPS, and an investigating caseworker visiting Shawn's house concluded Shawn needed to be removed until his disorganized mother learned how to keep a clean house.

Shawn was taken to a state-licensed group home for foster kids. Several teenage boys resided in the home, including Mark. No one liked Mark. Other boys told the group home staff that Mark always wanted to do sexual stuff.

So the group home staff let Mark room with 12-year-old Shawn.
Shawn was not sophisticated about institutional life. He had never been away from his mother. He was a little boy who loved animals and trucks.

Shawn was given a chore at the shelter: mopping a floor early in the morning. On the first day Shawn attempted to do his chore, a resident shoved a broomstick into Shawn's rectum as the boy leaned into a cabinet to get some soap. Shawn screamed and cried, which he realized later was a big mistake.

"If you cried at that shelter," says Shawn, "you got treated like a bitch."
And 12-year-old Shawn soon became Mark's bitch.
"One night, I was in bed trying to go to sleep, kickin' it with my headphones, and Mark walked in the room. . . . He said if I didn't do what he wanted, he'd get everybody in the shelter to beat me up.

"I punched him in the face, I kicked him in the kidneys, but it didn't make much difference.

"I took it for two months."
Kids in the shelter mocked Shawn for "being a fag." One kid even urinated on Shawn's clothes, he says.

Finally, Shawn told his CPS caseworker that Mark was sodomizing him.
"My caseworker told me I provoked it," says Shawn.
In April 1997, Shawn was returned home to his mother, Jill.

Accused of keeping a dirty house and sending Shawn to school in stinking clothes, Jill had pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse. She was put on a year's probation, and the judge promised if she kept up her house, the child-abuse count would be expunged from her record.

Despite her legal problems, Jill was overjoyed to have Shawn home again. At first, says Jill, Shawn seemed to be okay.

Then he began ripping curtains, punching holes in the walls, becoming a discipline problem at school. One day he started shoving Jill. Then he began hitting her.

"I began to worry that I might have a fractured skull someday," says Jill.
"This kid is not far from killing, I can tell you that right now," she says.
Shawn says, "I met my temper at the shelter."

Jill is getting therapy for Shawn, but she has little money and wonders how long she can afford it. The state has offered no assistance, she says.

In 1998, Shawn sued CPS and his caseworkers in Maricopa County Superior Court, contending their negligence in placing and monitoring the 12-year-old enabled the sex abuse.

The state's attorney, John Wolfinger, counters that the sex between Mark and Shawn was "consensual."

"All I can tell you is that there was an investigation by Mesa police," says Wolfinger. "The sex was consensual. The boy [Mark] admitted that and so did Shawn. That's an example of 'sex abuse in foster care'--two young men in an age appropriate group home being monitored by a staff."

One of those forgettable "child on child" cases.
When Jim Hart, of DES, is asked why Shawn was removed from his mother's house in the first place, he says CPS has changed the way it does things. The agency isn't so "prosecutorial" anymore, he says. Nowadays, if CPS finds a kid in a dirty house, and if the child is not otherwise being abused or neglected, the caseworker will leave the child at home. And send someone over to teach the parents good housekeeping skills.

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Terry Greene Sterling