Indian Takers

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"My job now and always is to put something in place that's in the child's best interest," she testified. "Right now, I have concerns about mother and father being able to provide a safe, stable placement."

But Driver also expressed concern that no one had informed CPS about the alleged abuse of Raven for five days after supposedly learning about it.

Still, Driver concluded that "the best thing for Raven at this time while I am trying to conduct my investigation . . . is to stay [at Embrace]."

Marty Laws showed up at this hearing (the only one he's ever attended in the custody case) to testify that "my daughter is my entire life. These people [the Bessingers] know it. Everybody knows it. I don't know what they think they're trying to do with this. Aneta feels that because she's had my daughter since birth that it's her kid. I don't know what's wrong with her, but that is what she believes."

Shelly Walters testified that she had been working as a waitress in east Mesa and had been off drugs for months, which the CPS caseworker confirmed.

Each parent agreed to take a urinalysis that day.

Walters did, and passed. Laws never took the test.

The next day, January 13, 2006, Judge Anderson wrote that Raven "appears to have developed stable and consistent relationships" at Embrace and gave temporary sole legal custody of the child to the Bessingers.

The judge also suspended visitation of Raven by either natural parent until further notice.

It was a smashing win for the Bessingers.

Then, for reasons never sufficiently explained, CPS officials showed up unannounced at Embrace one week later and took Raven into their custody. They did so under an Arizona law that allows the agency to put at-risk children into emergency foster care for up to 72 hours, not including weekends or holidays.

The Bessingers' attorney went ballistic, telling Anderson in a pleading that "CPS has unlawfully retained this child as an act of vengeance for [the Bessingers] failing to go to CPS before seeking emergency custody through this court. Why was this child ripped from her home?"

With Raven in a CPS-sanctioned foster home, Anderson set another emergency hearing for January 27.

Charlotte Driver of CPS told the judge that Shelly Walters had signed an agreement to allow the agency to keep Raven in foster care for at least 30 days as "family preservation" services were put into place.

Driver said it now troubled CPS that Embrace is unlicensed and unregulated, and that its owners had failed to promptly report the allegations of abuse toward Raven. She also said CPS was unhappy that the Bessingers had allowed drug felon Marty Laws to live at the home for a time in late 2005.

"Right now, we're going to try reunifying the child with the mother," the caseworker testified, sounding far more favorably disposed toward Walters than she had just two weeks earlier.

"We strongly recommend that Raven not be returned to the Bessingers. I know the Bessingers have placed a lot of judgments, which is completely natural, toward the natural mother and father. But that doesn't nix the parents from getting a right to parent their child."

Greg Riebesehl argued that Shelly Walters had lost her authority to sign Raven into foster care when the judge granted custody of Raven to the Bessingers, an intriguing point.

"Bottom line, they are the only parents that this child has ever known," the attorney said of his clients.

Judge Anderson noted that "the only people who've ever stepped up in this child's life [were the Bessingers]."

He then ordered CPS to return Raven to Embrace within 24 hours.

Shelly Walters wouldn't see her little girl for another six months.

Lisa Daniel Flores reported to Family Court in March 2006 after Governor Janet Napolitano appointed her to the bench.

The new judge was well-suited to the assignment, having spent two years of a decade-long stint with the Arizona Attorney General's Office representing CPS in dependency cases.

On June 19, Flores heard testimony for the first time about Raven's custody case, which she had taken over from Judge Anderson.

By then, CPS caseworker Driver had become an outright fan of Shelly Walters, who was living with her two teenagers and an older couple at the couple's home in Apache Junction.

Driver told the judge that she had been visiting Walters, had done background checks on the elderly couple and couldn't be happier with the woman's attitude and progress.

"Your Honor, we have a problem," she testified, "because Mom's done [drug tests]. Mom's been clean, Mom's got a stable job, Mom's got a stable home . . . I strongly feel that Rochelle deserves the chance to be a parent to her child. And this whole thing has turned into quite a mess."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin