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.

To emphasize that she really gets it, the youngster slowly spells out her new last name for all to hear.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin