Oedipus Wreck

As a video camera whirred away one afternoon last June, a nine-year-old boy popped his gum and accused his mother of sexually abusing him.

He said his mother, Wanda C., molested him when he was five. And he said she continued molesting him even after he'd been put in foster care at the age of six. During scheduled visits, he said, his mom would wait until the caseworker stepped out of the room and then would right away thrust his hand up her skirt. Or, he said, she'd rub him where she shouldn't.

And then the boy (whom we'll call "Sam") recounted how just two months ago Wanda and her mother stalked him near his foster home. Disguised as old people in Halloween costumes, they waved Snickers bars at him to lure him into their car. Sam said he escaped by pedaling his bike like mad to a construction site, jumping off a very tall roof and pounding frantically for help on a stranger's door.

Since then, Sam muttered, he'd ripped all his mom's pictures out of his album and he didn't invite her to his birthday party.

Looking right into the video camera, he said, "I never want to see her again."

And then he glanced at his foster mother, who was sitting with the half- dozen social workers and lawyers appointed by the Arizona Department of Economic Security's Division of Child Protective Services (CPS) to decide his fate.

"I've already got a mom," he said. "A better mom. The best mom I've ever had. And I'm pretty proud of it, too."

WANDA C., a 35-year-old Avondale waitress, has watched the tape so many times she almost has it memorized. As she watches it, she absently fiddles with a tapestry of Jesus--one of about a dozen likenesses of Jesus that hang in her house. Her fingernails are chewed down to tortured stubs. When she hears Sam say she shoved his hand up her skirt, she offers a dry little giggle. "Lies," she says. "What have they done to my son?"

Conversation is difficult for her because she suffers from an auditory disability that causes what sound like malapropisms. A counselor becomes a "councilperson." To go to therapy is to "be in therapist."

Wanda knows the video she's watching has been reviewed by the judges and lawyers and social workers who have kept her son in foster care for three years. She knows, from state records, that some of those doctors even suggested that she had sexual intercourse with Sam when he was three.

And she knows the tape only reinforces the thinking of the professionals who have tagged her as a pedophile who might harm her son if he were returned to her care. She may never get her son back.

She figures Sam's rage over being in foster care has caused him to tell the "pack of doggone lies" on the tape. She never shoved Sam's hands under her skirt in the CPS office, she says. And she and her mother never tried to kidnap the boy from his foster home.

However, Wanda admits there was once some "sickness" in her relationship with Sam. She admits she let Sam touch her breasts and "bottom part" when the boy was three-and-a-half years old. Even though she swore the child to secrecy while the touching was going on, she insists the incidents only happened about "ten times" and they were not sexual in nature. It was her fundamentalist Christian religion that caused her so much guilt over the sessions that she confessed them to her counselor in 1986, she now says.

When CPS officials took her son away a few days after that 1986 confession, she never dreamed she'd have to fight so long and so hard to try to win the child back.

And she never dreamed she'd become a public figure, of sorts, telling her story last fall to state senators and representatives who are looking into Arizona's child-abuse laws. Wanda's case has been championed by Victims of Child Abuse Laws, a lobbying group also known as VOCAL, as a clear example of how the state wrongly seizes children from their parents after investigating child-abuse complaints. In Arizona, VOCAL has "several thousand" members, says its board chairwoman, Mary Margaret Chapman. State agencies become prime targets of wrath from groups like VOCAL. Chapman and VOCAL volunteer Ruth Barr both oppose foster care and say most abused kids should be treated within the home. "Over 90 percent of families could be helped within the home--if it's sexual abuse, you keep the child there and remove the alleged perpetrator," Chapman says.

Barr admits there might be a "possibility" that Wanda molested her son, but she has championed Wanda's case anyway. To Barr, false charges of sexual abuse are inflaming the entire country. And she tags Wanda as an "innocent country girl" who didn't have the sophistication to battle the system. Barr has been trying to help Wanda for a year now. She told lawmakers that the waitress was poorly represented by state-appointed attorneys. She held a bake sale to get enough money for Wanda to see a good attorney. But the bake sale netted only enough for one visit with the high-priced lawyer. "I'm at my wit's end," Barr says. "I think this is one of the most mishandled cases in the world."

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Terry Greene