Friday, September 2, 2011

Arizona: meet the CPS bunker By Laurie Roberts

It seemed a reasonable enough question.

A four-month-old baby is found not breathing and near death, according to Chandler police. Baby Josephine suffers 14 broken bones, bruises all over her face and a cigarette burn to her arm.
All this, while she is in the custody of a “safety monitor,” a woman entrusted with the infant's care by Child Protective Services.

So, as I said, it seemed reasonable to ask why CPS put the baby with this woman and what steps the agency took to ensure the baby would be safe — back before she became a punching bag and an ash tray.

Public: Meet bunker.

“Your request for public records in this matter is respectfully declined,” wrote Todd Stone, public records request coordinator for the Department of Economic Security, which oversees CPS.

To understand how outrageous the DES response is, you have to go back to 2007 when three Tucson children died on CPS's watch. While CPS was busy sweeping the story under its well-worn rug, this newspaper and The Arizona Daily Star sued to get the records, uncovering a stunning array of foul-ups and failures that hastened those children to their graves. As a result, the Legislature in 2008 passed a series of reforms, including a law opening CPS records when a child is beaten to death or nearly so.

The new law was simple. It says that CPS “shall promptly provide CPS information to the public regarding a case of child abuse, abandonment or neglect that has resulted in a fatality or near fatality.”

Now, fast forward to last week, when Chandler police arrested Angelica Jimenez and her boyfriend, Steven Saldana, for child abuse. According to police, baby Josephine was no longer breathing when she was discovered in the early hours of Aug. 3. She was taken to Cardon Children's Medical Center, near death and in seizures.

“The victim was found to have fourteen broken bones in the legs and ribs. There also was a cigarette burn to the left forearm along with bumps and bruises on the forehead as well as bruising on both sides of the face…,” police wrote in court documents. “Forensic doctors stated the child had suffered a near-death episode and the injuries were non-accidental trauma.”

Jimenez told police that the baby had been placed in her care by CPS, a fact which CPS confirmed.

So I asked for the records last week. I wanted to know why CPS felt Jimenez was an appropriate “safety monitor” and what steps the agency took to check her background and the background of her felon live-in boyfriend.

Within 24, hours, I was turned down flat.

I pointed out the police document that quoted the doctors … and was told CPS must have “a determination from a Doctor specifically stating that a near fatality occurred”.

Beyond, apparently, the determination of the doctors on the scene who talked to the police on the scene.

Arizona Republic attorney David Bodney wrote a four-page demand letter. Again, CPS said no.

“All appropriate parties were engaged in a review of the matter,” Stone wrote Wednesday. “In connection with such review, a conclusion was reached that the incident that is the subject of the public records request in question was not a near fatality.”

I asked who “all appropriate parties” were. Stone's reply: “The forensic physician involved in this case made the determination that this was not a near fatality.”

I don't know if it's the same forensic physician who told the police that it was a near-death episode. But since CPS is determined to go to great lengths to avoid answering questions about what it did -- or didn't do -- to protect baby Josephine, I'll toss out one more hurdle.

State and federal law define a near fatality as “an act that, as certified by a physician, places a child in serious or critical condition.”

Hard to see how 14 broken bones, a cigarette burn and a four-month-old baby not breathing wouldn't qualify.

Former House Speaker Kirk Adams, a prime sponsor of the 2008 law, called the CPS response “disturbing,” noting that the law requires openness in such cases so that children ultimately are better protected.

“It certainly was not our intent to provide a technical escape clause for them not to share what has happened in these cases,” he said. “There is incredible public interest to know whether or not an agency which has a nearly impossible but incredibly important task of protecting these children, whether or not things operated correctly, whether or not procedures are being followed.”

One would think that the CPS brass, given their budget woes, would have better things to do than spending a week working out how to avoid having to explain to the public what they did to ensure baby Josephine's safety before handing her over to the woman who now sits in jail.

But no. The bunker's been fortified, the blackout curtains have dropped, the moat's been dug and alligators are circling, to warn off any brave soul who might try to get a peek into the place.

(Column published Sept. 3, 2011, The Arizona Republic)

Friday, September 2, 2011 at 06:07 PM


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