Indian Takers

Steve Bison of Alabama's Cherokee River Indian Community says the war over 4-year-old Raven Laws may be traced back to the legendary Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

"It's a long story," he says.

Fought during the War of 1812, it pitted soldiers under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson and their Cherokee Indian allies against the Creeks. After his victory, Jackson forced the Creeks to cede about half of Alabama and part of Georgia. The Cherokees claimed a chunk of that land, for a time.

The connection between a cute little Apache Junction girl and the seventh president of the United States does require a certain leap of logic, or illogic.

But the issues aren't nearly so obscure to most everyone else involved in one of Maricopa County's more unusual custody battles.

To Superior Court Judge Lisa Daniel Flores, it would come down to this:

Yes, Raven's mother, Rochelle Walters, had a record of committing crimes and abusing methamphetamine. Police had arrested Walters on forgery and identity theft charges while she was pregnant with Raven, and returned her to jail from a Valley hospital bed soon after she gave birth.

Raven's father, Marty Laws, also a convicted felon and a tweaker, couldn't take care of himself, much less a small child.

And, yes, the judge would conclude, Jack and Aneta Bessinger, a Cave Creek couple who had assumed surrogate parenting duties of Raven, had done a fine job (and without financial compensation).

The Bessingers operate Embrace, a home for at-risk children in the desert north of Phoenix. Raven had lived there since shortly after her birth, except for eight months that ended in April 2005, when Shelly Walters was jailed on a probation violation for continuing to do meth and a shoplifting conviction.

But to the Bessingers' dismay, Flores ruled last November 14 that Walters, apparently drug-free for almost a year by then, had earned a shot at being a real mother to Raven, who was two weeks short of her fourth birthday.

Earlier, the judge had given everyone a good idea of where she was headed.

"I don't question the good motivation that you have to help people and trying to help Ms. Walters," Flores told the Bessingers in June 2006, six months after the couple won temporary legal custody of Raven.

"But you need to understand that she is Mom, and she is going to get the child back as soon as her life is together . . . If Ms. Walters does have her act together — and Child Protective Services clearly thinks she does — there is absolutely no basis for her to be with you."

In other words, natural parents legally hold sway in custody cases, even over folks who may have done a better job with a child than the biological parents.

In this instance, the Bessingers had bonded with Raven as if she were their own.

"No one paid a dime to these people, including the mom," says their attorney, Greg Riebesehl. "As a society, we should feel blessed to have people out there like them. It's very sad what happened."

Trouble was, according to the ample public records produced during this case, the Bessingers took desperate measures to ensure that Raven never again would live under her mother's roof.

Those measures began a few months after Walters was released from prison in early 2004, when the couple filed court documents accusing her of abandoning Raven. That first legal attempt to convince a judge that Walters' parental rights should be terminated didn't work.

But the Bessingers remained steadfast, often with good reason, that they could better provide for Raven than her mother.

They upped the ante in late 2005, alleging that Walters had sexually abused Raven during a Christmas Day visit. However, a forensic examiner at ChildHelp failed to substantiate the claims.

Unfortunately, allegations (true or not) of abuse are commonplace in Family Court and rarely become newsworthy. The Raven Laws custody battle would have stayed out of the media but for a bizarre turn of events in late January.

It hit the news on January 23, after two Native American women, somehow connected with Alabama's Cherokee River Indian Community (CRIC), kidnapped Raven from her mother's home in Apache Junction.

The women took Raven while Shelly Walters was in a Mesa courtroom trying to persuade Judge Flores to end visitation privileges approved for the Bessingers after the couple grudgingly had returned the child in November.

Accompanied by a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy, the women flashed papers at Walters' 14-year-old daughter, who was home alone with her half-sister Raven.

Signed by an alleged "juvenile judge pro tem" with the Cherokee River Indian Community, the paperwork said the group was assuming control over Raven's case under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.