Indian Takers

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But a subsequent CPS investigation sided with Walters.

Caseworkers apparently believed Walters when she claimed she hadn't immediately visited Raven because she first wanted to get her feet on the ground — drug rehab, a place to live, community-service hours and employment.

Embrace was the only home that Raven had ever known. She had bonded with everyone there, including her surrogate parents and siblings (the other at-risk kids), and with a horse named Miracle.

She was healthy and safe.

But in late June 2004, the Bessingers — with no legal hold on the child — unhappily turned over Raven to Shelly Walters.

Within a month, however, the couple filed a dependency petition against Walters in county court, saying she was incapable of adequately parenting Raven, then nearing her second birthday.

The Bessingers alleged in part that Walters wrongly had reported Raven as kidnapped when she was trying to get her child back, and that 10 sheriff's deputies had come to Embrace after authorities issued an Amber Alert.

Aneta Bessinger also claimed she had seen Shelly Walters pull Raven's hair and fling the little girl against the furniture at Embrace.

CPS again investigated and learned that Walters had called the sheriff's office but that no patrol cars had been dispatched to Embrace and no Amber Alert issued.

CPS recommended dismissal of the Bessingers' petition, and a judge agreed.

Shelly Walters was allowed to keep her daughter.

But she couldn't hold herself together.

In January 2005, Walters and her teenage son were charged with shoplifting at a Mesa store and later pleaded guilty. That April, court officials sought to revoke Walters' probation, alleging that she had used meth at least six times since the previous September, among other misdeeds.

A judge ordered her back to jail for a few months.

Marty Laws tried briefly to take care of his daughter, but he had other pressing matters, including a trial scheduled that summer on a methamphetamine possession charge (he was convicted and placed on probation).

Laws asked the Bessingers if they would take Raven back, which they gladly did.

Shelly Walters visited her daughter weekly at Embrace after she got out of jail in the summer of 2005. But she wasn't in control of the situation — the Bessingers and Marty Laws were.

Last year, Walters insisted to Judge Flores that her relationship with Laws was solid and enduring.

But, in October 2005, she had written in court papers that, "Marty told me that I will never see Raven again and he would do physical harm to me if I attempted to take her back."

All this laid the groundwork for what happened in 2006, a year of increasingly contentious courtroom battles.

In 1997, the Arizona Legislature passed a law that allows stepparents (blood relatives or not) who have acted in place of a natural parent to gain legal custody or visitation with a child.

Courts use the term in loco parentis to describe the situation, and loco doesn't mean crazy.

The law authorizes county judges to approve visitation and even award custody to non-parents under certain circumstances.

But the legislators didn't make it easy for non-parents, who must convince a judge with "clear and convincing" evidence that it would be "significantly detrimental" to leave a child with his or her biological parents.

Still, on December 28, 2005, the Bessingers asked county Judge Arthur Anderson for legal custody of Raven, who had just celebrated her third birthday.

"It would be significantly detrimental to the child to remain or be placed in the custody of either of the child's natural living parents," their attorney wrote. "Both have substantial criminal histories, current criminal charges pending against them, [and] the minor child has been neglected while in their care and physically abused."

The Bessingers now claimed someone had smacked Raven during a visit at Shelly Walters' home that Christmas Day, leaving bruises on the girl's face and torso. They quoted from a report by psychologist Madeline Modrak, who had spoken to Raven on December 26.

Modrak had written that "it is [my] opinion that Raven is a child in significant imminent physical danger, in addition to ongoing emotional trauma when in her parents' care [with] the potential to result in severe injury or death."

Walters responded by angrily denying wrongdoing and asked Judge Anderson to order Raven's removal from Embrace until he decided on custody.

An emergency hearing on January 12 included inflammatory new allegations by the Bessingers that Walters had performed oral sex on her daughter, or vice versa.

CPS caseworker Charlotte Driver informed the judge that her agency was investigating the allegations of abuse.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin