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SHOULD ABUSIVEFAMILIES BE KEPT TOGETHER?

For several weeks last spring, angry parents besieged radio talk shows with tearful complaints about their children having been removed from their custody. Their hysteria was directed at the Child Protective Services branch of the Arizona Department of Economic Security. It resulted in joint legislative hearings to scrutinize the inner workings of the state agency.

At the hearings, the parents told the same story to legislators that they had been telling radio talk show hosts: CPS had falsely charged them with sexual and physical child abuse and capriciously and heartlessly removed their children from their homes.

As a result of the hearings, the legislature passed House Bill 2690, which ordered CPS to emphasize "family preservation and reunification" as well as parents' rights to privacy, counseling and legal assistance. The law also gave CPS $3 million to hire more staff and create more "home-based" programs.

Since the law took effect, fewer children have been removed from their homes. In 1989, for instance, CPS investigated 18,000 cases of child abuse and neglect statewide and filed 1,200 petitions in county juvenile courts to remove children from their homes. In 1990, the agency investigated 20,029 cases and filed only 970 court petitions to remove kids from their parents.

What is alarming is that reports of child abuse and neglect are increasing, and that most of the reports turn out to be valid. Although there is a stereotype of a vindictive spouse filing false child-abuse reports in child-custody battles, there is very little "phony reporting," says Tim Schmaltz, assistant director for the Department of Economic Security's division of social services.

The question is whether the new law, with its emphasis on keeping families intact, has done more harm than good. Are children like Lynette's grandkids better served staying with abusive parents who undergo parenting classes and "home-based" counseling? Or are they better off with a caring relative or foster parents?

No one really knows. "The real fundamental dilemma at CPS is when do you remove a kid and when do you keep him in a home? We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," admits Schmaltz.

Schmaltz says the law has given CPS the money and staff for preventive programs to curb child abuse. One such program is Healthy Start, which sends teams of caseworkers into homes and hospitals to identify families who might abuse their newborn babies. The high-risk group includes parents who have been abused, or who have a "generally chaotic life, multiple separations, poor work stability, debts and frequent moves." Parents can volunteer for the program, which entails repeated home visits by social workers, until their child is five years old.

All of this comes too late for Lynette's family.
Intergenerational child abuse is one of the most complex--and common--problems CPS has to deal with, says Schmaltz. The agency is just starting to look at these "extended family issues." Even though a middle-aged woman who was sexually abused might begin to heal herself as she's grown older, he says, all generations need "support" to break the cycle. "Sometimes we can heal families," Schmaltz says. "We have to give people hope whether they are young or middle-aged," he says. "We have to try. We can't turn our back on it.

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Terry Greene