June 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Dirty Job Stains Agency Cps Alternately Accused Of Forsaking, Stealing Children

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Ten people are discussing what to do about a Spokane family living in a drafty shack that could easily catch fire and kill four little children.

Until now, the state Child Protective Services workers have been collegial and loose during a daily review of child abuse and neglect reports.

But the details of this case are sobering.

The shack has no running water. The toilet is a bucket on the floor. The kids sleep in a rickety loft with no railing. The heat is a primitive wood stove.

The situation is so dire that two social workers agree to visit the family that afternoon to assess the safety of the children, to see if the kids should be pulled from their home and their parents.

“Oh, we don’t want to remove the kids,” laments one caseworker. The words hang out there. They all know it’s a possibility.

CPS is arguably the most feared, hated and least understood agency in the state. It also shoulders perhaps the hardest, most intrusive task: protecting children from their parents.

Not surprisingly, the agency is savaged from both sides.

When a child dies of neglect or abuse, CPS is crucified for failing to protect the kid. More often, the agency is portrayed by enraged parents as a big-government Gestapo unit out to kidnap beloved children.

The testimonies are terrifying. Newborns are pried from their mothers’ arms at hospitals. Children are snatched at day-care centers, schools or straight from their homes and hauled away to foster care.

“They had to drag that kid off me when they took him out of here,” Patricia Hicks says of the March day that CPS seized her 5-year-old son, Shelby. “He’s a momma’s boy. He’s a gift from God. The way they took him away from me was pure torture. I can’t even put it into words….”

Hicks, a single Spokane mother, says the agency tells her she will get her boy back no later than September if she completes programs CPS required. “They better give him to me or I’m going to take him and run.”

If CPS decides a child is in danger, the agency usually succeeds at getting the kid out of the house, at least for a while. And if a caseworker decides a child should be put up for adoption, parents usually lose all rights to the child if the case goes to court.

Spokane County judges approved 61 of 69 petitions to terminate parental rights last year.

The public rarely hears the CPS side of these contentious stories, because the agency is sworn to confidentiality.

Last fall, a panel of state senators visited Spokane to listen to livid parents describe how CPS stole their children, believed false accusations or punished them for being poor.

Some top CPS officials and caseworkers sat anonymously in the back of the room during the raucous hearing. Looking more like friendly hikers than the heartless militants being depicted, they endured the two-hour assault without defending themselves.

Roy Harrington, regional director of the state Department of Children and Family Services, was appalled by what some CPS workers called a witch hunt. “I feel more disgusted than vilified,” he said afterward. “It is fundamentally unfair.”

CPS supervisor Brian Barbour was even less impressed with the testimonies. “Some of those guys up there (complaining) were convicted sex offenders.”

After lunch, Barbour and caseworker Tracey Bozanich head north to visit the family in the fire-hazard shack.

They want to know if the couple has a plan that will keep the children safe. Did they clean up the creosote leaking down the stove pipe? Did they put rails on the loft so the kids wouldn’t fall out? If a fire strikes, the shack is up in smoke, says Barbour. “Within five minutes it will be gone.”

They navigate a rutted road, pass a few mobile homes and stop in a driveway beneath a small cabin. They stroll toward two friendly dogs. Smoke curls out of a tin chimney.

From the vantage of CPS workers, the agency is understaffed and overwhelmed.

They see 2-year-olds running in the street, toddlers getting beaten, molested, tormented, families living in filth. They only have time to investigate the most serious allegations.

And as critics increasingly damn the agency, caseworkers say they are facing more drug-crazed and vengeful parents than ever. Some workers have even hired bodyguards.

“You’re walking into people’s castles, you’re walking into their lives,” says Harrington of his CPS workers. “It’s real tough. But at the same time if you have kids in dangerous situations you have to take action. That’s why this agency exists.”

Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, sees a different reality. She believes CPS routinely oversteps its authority and is unqualified to investigate abuse and neglect.

She also trumpets evidence that the agency is corrupt.

An affidavit from seven witnesses indicates Jean Soliz, the former head of DSHS, told a roomful of people that she wanted to get the records on a certain CPS case before “workers start destroying records.”

The cabin door opens. Four kids are buzzing around on a plywood floor. The twin girls are dressed in long T-shirts and nothing else. Their feet are black, their faces streaked with dirt.

There’s a Coleman stove, a picnic table, a double bed and a television. The kids are watching a Rodney Dangerfield movie from their parents’ bed. A flag boasting “Proud To Be An American” hangs between the bed and the wood stove.

Under the picnic table is a bucket half full of urine, excrement and toilet paper.

The father, 28, fiddles with the chimney piping with calloused, sooty hands. He looks warily at Barbour and Bozanich.

Barbour asks the father if the family has any other housing options.

The man says his parents have a one-bedroom mobile home they possibly could use, but the heater is broken. Barbour says maybe the state could pay to fix it and at least the children could sleep in the trailer at night - in safety.

Bozanich tells the mother she has heard complaints from the school that the children smell. The woman bristles. “How could they smell?” she asks. “I wash their clothes.”

The clothes hanging from a rod in the ceiling look surprisingly neat and clean in an otherwise dirty, chaotic room.

Maybe the kids need showers, says Bozanich.

The mother repeats that she washes the clothes.

The kids jump around on the bed until one of the twins gets whacked in the head and cries. The mother rushes over and shouts, “Stop it!”

The father explains to Barbour that the shack was considered a temporary home when they moved in last summer.

But he hasn’t been able to get ahead, he says. He only makes $40 more a month pumping gas than they got when they were on welfare, he explains.

Barbour asks the man if he understands why CPS is concerned. Sure, the man says. He’s concerned too.

Then Barbour makes it clearer. CPS wants to keep the family together, he says. The man squints. “We’ve always been where the kids are,” he says.

The mother better understands Barbour. “You can’t take the children,” she declares, emotion climbing into her voice.

CPS did take the twin boys belonging to Lonny and Victoria Jones last year - soon after they were born at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

The couple believes CPS is unfairly punishing them for their pasts and refusing to give them a chance to show they can be good parents.

“They don’t have the right to take my kids away on an ‘if’ or a ‘maybe,”’ Lonny Jones says. “If I screw up, then you got a right to do something. … We were trying to get our lives together, then boom. CPS claims it works with families to make things work. They’re working against us every step of the way.”

Victoria Jones passed all the required drug treatment and parenting programs and says she’s ready for her babies, Cullen and Cody. A counselor agrees.

But from CPS’ vantage, the Joneses are not ready to parent kids with “special needs” who have had troubles eating and growing in their current foster care.

The parents have long histories of substance abuse, adds CPS’ Harrington, after getting the couple’s permission to discuss the case. He also notes the premature twins are still in need of expert care.

It’s unclear whether the Joneses will get their kids back.

Debra Farley got her son back. The Spokane woman is one of the few investigated parents to publicly praise CPS.

Last year, Farley’s infant son Timmy was put into a foster home. “At first I was very upset,” says Farley, who’d had drug problems. “Then it opened my eyes up to never mess up again.”

Farley describes her CPS caseworker this way: “She just was very caring and was with us instead of against us.”

Farley says she followed the agency’s guidance and got Timmy back in a matter of months.

Leaving the shack, Barbour says the health inspector will probably force the family out unless the building is repaired and improved.

He feels uncomfortable about the timing, that CPS arrived after the family had already survived a brutal winter. “We might be doing more damage here than good here,” he says.

Bozanich comments on how dirty the kids were. They both note how the place smelled and how the stink stuck to their clothes.

Barbour says if the kids are taken from the parents they will be separated because no foster home could take all four.

He doesn’t like the thought. “That’s all they have,” he says, “is each other.”

The state workers discuss the case in more detail. At least the couple is still together and there doesn’t appear to be drugs in the home.

What about the parents’ history? The only report of abuse is a facial bruise on one of the girls who said her mother slapped her.

Bozanich sympathizes with the mother. Pen her up in a tiny house with four rambunctious kids and she might lose her temper too, she says.

Barbour is frustrated. If the house burns, he says CPS will be attacked for not acting sooner.

He also suspects the average citizen would argue the kids should be removed from the home. Barbour is torn. “We might be doing more damage here than good here,” he says again.

The next week, Bozanich brings the case before a panel of community advisers that reviews serious CPS cases.

One member advocates taking the kids from the parents. But the final decision is to let them stay.

An account is opened at a hardware store so the couple can perform more repairs and get a heater for the mobile home.

CPS spent most of its monthly emergency budget helping the family. Now a caseworker is watching closely, to see if the children are safe.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color Photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Under scrutiny The ruckus over the state’s Child Protective Services is so loud that Gov. Mike Lowry called a meeting this week to brainstorm ways to overhaul the agency. A CPS symposium in Tacoma on Monday and Tuesday is billed as a “no-holds-barred” look at the way the agency handles child abuse and neglect cases. Lowry, legislators, social workers and angry parents will meet at the Tacoma-Sheraton to consider such proposals as having police, not social workers, investigate child abuse allegations. Similar measures were proposed during the 1996 Legislature but died.

2. CPS’ mission Child Protective Services is a branch of the state Department of Social and Health Services. The agency investigates reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. CPS has the authority to interview children without the permission of their parents. Caseworkers arrange services to educate parents and prepare them to better raise their kids. They also work with police and the courts when they decide children must be removed from their homes to protect them. The decision to pull a child from a home must be approved by a court within 72 hours of the time the child is seized. CPS often places “imperiled” children with foster parents or relatives while an investigation continues and parents take the opportunity to prove they can be suitable mothers and fathers. If CPS continues to believe children would be in imminent danger with their parents, the agency may try to convince a court to terminate parental rights and put the child up for adoption.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Under scrutiny The ruckus over the state’s Child Protective Services is so loud that Gov. Mike Lowry called a meeting this week to brainstorm ways to overhaul the agency. A CPS symposium in Tacoma on Monday and Tuesday is billed as a “no-holds-barred” look at the way the agency handles child abuse and neglect cases. Lowry, legislators, social workers and angry parents will meet at the Tacoma-Sheraton to consider such proposals as having police, not social workers, investigate child abuse allegations. Similar measures were proposed during the 1996 Legislature but died.

2. CPS’ mission Child Protective Services is a branch of the state Department of Social and Health Services. The agency investigates reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. CPS has the authority to interview children without the permission of their parents. Caseworkers arrange services to educate parents and prepare them to better raise their kids. They also work with police and the courts when they decide children must be removed from their homes to protect them. The decision to pull a child from a home must be approved by a court within 72 hours of the time the child is seized. CPS often places “imperiled” children with foster parents or relatives while an investigation continues and parents take the opportunity to prove they can be suitable mothers and fathers. If CPS continues to believe children would be in imminent danger with their parents, the agency may try to convince a court to terminate parental rights and put the child up for adoption.

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