Silence of the Lambs

The calls come to my voice mail with depressing regularity. At least once a week, sometimes more.

"Please help me," callers beg. "Child Protective Services stole my kid."

The stories that follow are unique only in the details. Mom or Dad insist that they've done nothing wrong. And even if they did, once, they swear they've turned things around. They're doing everything they can, but they can't seem to make any progress in the system.

Please, they say, can't New Times get to the bottom of what's happening with their case?

The short answer is, no. We can't.

And that's just the way CPS likes it.

The fact is, unlike trials for embezzlement or murder or even rape, CPS dependency hearings, which determine custody and whether parents continue to have the right to raise their children, are closed to the public. The agency's paperwork is also sealed.

And that means the entire system operates without scrutiny from outsiders, be they reporters or advocates. (There's a state ombudsman, but he is legally barred from releasing specifics about cases.) We never get to see the evidence that would determine whether kids are wrongly being taken from their parents, as so many callers insist on my voice mail, or whether CPS is instead erring on the side of leaving kids in unsafe homes.

We can write about the big picture because CPS has to release some statistical information every six months. But we can't look at the heart of the system: the individual families who are forced to deal with it. Even when those families are crying out for their cases to be reviewed, we simply can't get enough information to determine what's really going on.

Our tax dollars pay for this system. Even more importantly, we all depend on it to protect our state's youngest and most helpless citizens.

None of us has any idea whether it's working.

Here's the good news: An Arizona state senator plans to introduce a bill that would let the sunshine in. Senator Linda Gray, R-Mesa, wants changes for CPS that include opening up dependency hearings and paperwork.

It's a really good idea, one that the Legislature needs to follow through on. And if Governor Janet Napolitano is serious about improving CPS, as she's claimed, she, too, must get onboard.

In the past two decades, 17 other states have opened dependency hearings to the public. As far as I can tell, not one has reported major problems with open hearings. And this should tell you something: Not one has since reverted to a closed system.

More recently, Arizona tried a pilot program to open a small number of cases — about 10 percent — to the public. A report, prepared by an ASU graduate student at the conclusion of the pilot program last year, found no real problems with increased openness.

And yet when the pilot program ended, we went right back to closed doors.

I can't understand why. Unless, of course, CPS simply doesn't want anyone keeping an eye on it.

Liz Barker Alvarez, the spokeswoman for CPS, tells me that Arizona has "one of the broadest laws when it comes to sharing information about families involved in the child welfare system."

Maybe — and I think this is a big "maybe" — that's true on paper. But it's definitely not true in reality.

Here's how dependency hearings work in Arizona. Supposedly, anyone — including parents who want help in getting their kids back, or grandparents who insist that the wrong person has been handed custody, or even the media — can petition for the hearing to be open.

But the court rarely seems to take the petition seriously, much less agrees to open things up. I've had parents beg the judge to let me in. Nope, the judge decreed. That was that. I didn't even get a chance to argue my case. And if you think getting into court is tough, getting records is even worse. Public-records laws simply don't apply.

That's why advocates like Richard Wexler, director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, are calling for a "rebuttable presumption of openness." Basically, a hearing would be open unless someone could demonstrate to the judge why it should be otherwise.

Hearings and records should be closed, Wexler argues, only if lawyers for the parents or the child want them closed — and if they can convince the judge "by clear and convincing evidence that opening a hearing or record or portion of a hearing would cause severe emotional damage to a child." Notice that the request would have to come from the parents, or the child's lawyer. CPS wouldn't be allowed to ask for closure.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske