The mother shuffled into the courtroom and slumped into a chair. She rarely spoke, mumbling her replies to Maricopa County Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Klein.
She had already lost her rights to one young daughter because of drugs and was on her way to losing a second. It was difficult to tell if she cared. The hearing ended and she went to take a courtordered urine test.
On another day, a hysterical woman with black-rimmed eyes and leathery skin struggled to string together a coherent answer to questions posed by four attorneys in Judge Sherry Stephens’ courtroom.
She had been diagnosed as delusional, psychotic and bipolar, and involuntarily committed four times last year. But she insisted that doctors believe the state’s Child Protective Services had stolen her three children and should immediately reunite the family.
These mothers came to Mesa’s juvenile courthouse because their kids, at least for now, belong to the state.
Judges decide in dependency hearings if children should be removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect, and whether or not to return them. They do so in secret.
Arizona is about to join a national movement toward opening child abuse and neglect hearings, buoyed by the state constitution and opponents-turned-advocates who say it will unveil a system that often fails children and families.
A little-known pilot program passed in 1997, however, allows the public inside these hearings, offering a window into the world of troubled families and an overloaded child welfare system.
Gov. Janet Napolitano is expected to sign a bill she requested to continue the experiment in up to 10 percent of courtrooms in Mesa’s juvenile divisions. She and others see it as a first step in CPS reform, followed next month by recommendations from a broad-based child welfare advisory commission.
"One of the problems with CPS is the public perception that everything is done secretly, behind closed doors," said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, the bill’s sponsor. "And when you’re trying to reform it and bring about better results . . . people can see what really goes on and hear both sides of the story."
Twelve states routinely let the press and the public in, including Minnesota, Oregon, Illinois and Michigan, where courts have been open for 15 years.
In Arizona and elsewhere, state constitutions require all courts to be public and, historically, most juvenile hearings were open. Public pressure — particularly after children known to CPS have died or have been wrongly removed from their families — also has fueled the open-court trend. And proponents have successfully argued that closed hearings are primarily protecting child welfare bureaucrats, not children.
Judges and attorneys are cautious, but generally believe open courts will help bring about change. As long as the new law gives judges the option of closing individual cases, they say, it will demystify the dependency process and give the public an unvarnished view of CPS and the 6,200 foster children it seeks to protect.
"It’s just a horrible system, all the way around, for parents and kids," said Tempe attorney Jeff Zurbriggen, who has represented parents and children in juvenile court for eight years. "I think 99 percent of the time, CPS righteously takes the kid . . . but 90 percent of the time, parents are unjustly treated in the system."
A provision making it a crime to disclose identifying information about the children, parents, caregivers "and others mentioned in the hearing," however, goes further than the Minnesota law after which the bill is modeled and raises questions about how the Arizona media can report cases when the parents want to go public.
The Tribune gained access to recent abuse and neglect hearings by agreeing not to identify the participants, but other states have no such confidentiality requirement. There’s no evidence that openness has resulted in fewer reports of abuse or neglect, or exposed children to additional trauma.
KIDS, PARENTS WAIT FOR HELP
The pace can be frenetic. Caseloads for attorneys and judges grew large enough last year to open two new juvenile court divisions at the main downtown courthouse.
Juvenile court judges may hear 15 to 20 cases a day, up to 100 a week, moving from child abuse to delinquency cases and back again in the span of 30 minutes. Children are rarely present at dependency hearings.
Judge Klein started a recent day with the case of a middle-schooler who had been kicked out of her foster home after three years.
Her mother had long since lost legal rights to her two sisters, who live with their grandmother. This child isn’t allowed to visit them, though it’s what her attorney says she desperately wants. Her other hope is to be placed with a family.
Her birthday is in a few days, but she’s in trouble at the shelter and will probably be on "restriction," her attorney says.
"Does she know that her behavior is keeping her from finding a foster family and seeing her sisters?" Klein asks her lawyer.
"Sometimes she just can’t hold it together," he replies.
The CPS caseworker, who’s had the case just more than a month, says she’s looking for a therapeutic foster home or a therapeutic group home, but there’s a severe shortage of either.
The girl had her case plan changed to long-term foster care, which means she is considered unadoptable. She likely will spend her teenage years in a group home and "age out" of the system when she turns 18.
The case is the first of several this day that illustrate larger problems within the child welfare system.
"It’s overloaded. It’s underfunded," said Gilbert attorney Patti O’Connor. "And there’s no place to put the children so they sit and simmer in their own problems."
It can take months to get mental health services or find a spot in a therapeutic foster home or treatment center, which can have devastating, long-term effects on children and disrupt their placements with foster families, experts say.
"These children need services tomorrow, because they start deteriorating in like two days. It is really an urgency with some of these kids," O’Connor said. "There’s a big lag time between what they say they’re going to do and when services start."
The same is true for parents.
Six months ago, Klein ordered the mother in his next case to participate in counseling, but the sessions had yet to begin. She had stopped using drugs, her panic attacks were under control and the judge was set to approve overnight visits with her daughter.
She wanted and needed the counseling, but the CPS case manager apparently didn’t start applying for state insurance until February. The state’s lawyer blamed the delays on the county’s mental health system.
Still, it was the only family that day that seemed headed for a happy ending. CPS suggested that mother and child could be back together in six months, but Klein said the process could be started sooner and set the next hearing for late July. Meanwhile, the girl would remain with her grandmother.
"It’s nice to be involved in a case that’s progressing," the child’s lawyer said.
DRUGS DOMINATE CASES
Those involved in child welfare say parental drug abuse plays a role in 90 percent of dependency cases.
"Once meth hit the scene about seven or eight years ago, it just changed everything in this Valley. With meth, they just don’t take care of their kids," said attorney Paul Theut, who’s practiced juvenile law for 15 years with three of his brothers.
Most of Klein’s dependency cases on a recent day involved parents who abused drugs. One mother appeared all but incoherent and hadn’t seen her daughter since November.
"As long as you continue to test positive (for drugs), you’re going to have trouble ever getting your daughter back," the judge told her.
The woman had missed appointments with a parent aide, state employees who often stand in for CPS case workers. Still, CPS recommended supervised visitation. Klein said no, not until she has two consecutive clean drug tests.
CPS administrator Janice Mickens said she’s particularly concerned about drug treatment funding, targeted for deep cuts under the legislative budget proposal. Without it, she worries that more children will come into foster care and fewer kids will be returned to their families.
Opening dependency courts will provide a good public education, she said, and hopefully encourage more family members to become involved.
"We believe that open courts will improve the public’s confidence in CPS," Mickens said. "In terms of educating the public on what we do and why sometimes things don’t move as quickly as people would like to see."
Process of removal
Once a child is removed from the home, here’s what takes place in juvenile court:
Preliminary protective hearing:
Within five to seven days of a child’s removal. This hearing may follow a conference with parents, CPS and attorneys to decide where the child should live and how to reunify the family.
Initial dependency hearing:
Within 21 days of the child’s removal.
Dependency adjudication hearing: Within 90 days of removal, if parents want a trial to fight it. The hearing usually follows an unsuccessful settlement conference or mediation. The judge decides whether the allegations are true and the child is "dependent."
Disposition hearing: Can be the same day as dependency hearing but not more than 30 days later. The judge decides whether to reunite the child with family and what services are needed.
Report and review: At least every six months. The child’s placement and services are reviewed as well as progress toward reunification or termination of parental rights.
Permanency planning: Within 30 days of disposition hearing if judge doesn’t order reunification, or within 12 months of child’s removal. The judge decides to continue the current placement, move toward terminating parents’ rights and adoption, or appoint a permanent guardian.