Tim Steller: Yet another child dies - Are we doing all we can?

2013-03-24T00:00:00Z 2013-03-24T21:43:35Z Tim Steller: Yet another child dies - Are we doing all we can?Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

We're already forgetting Adyson Gaxiola. When the toddler died of abuse March 15, at 18 months old, it merited a short item in this paper.

Murders of children, often by their parents, have become so common that I'd already forgotten two more in Tucson this year: 8-month-old Connor Kroviak in January and 10-year-old John Cataline in February.

However, one new detail of Adyson's numbingly familiar case emerged this week - and perhaps can help us keep our focus on protecting children. Arizona's Child Protective Services agency reported it had received a previous report of abuse of Adyson committed by her mother, Monique Gaxiola. It did not elaborate.

That piece of news reopens a long-standing issue: Is Arizona's child-protective agency doing enough - yet - to protect the children it's charged with protecting?

More to the point, are we demanding that they do so?

I looked into the court records of Adyson's father and accused killer, Kristepher Benavidez, and it made me wonder what CPS knew about him when they looked into allegations against the girl's mother. There's certainly enough to make you question if he'd be a dangerous father.

Benavidez, 25, does not appear to have come from from a horrendously dysfunctional family and actually graduated from high school, but he was arrested on drug charges once a year in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The substances he was convicted of handling progressed from Ecstasy pills to OxyContin and other prescription narcotics, to heroin.

A presentence report in his last case, dated July 5, 2011, says he acknowledged getting addicted to heroin about September 2010.

"At the time he began using it, he was 'devastated' after being informed by a friend he was the possible father of her baby," the report says. "His brother offered him some heroin, and after using it once he was addicted."

It's unclear from the records whether Benavidez was the father of that child. The date is too early for it to refer to Adyson or her twin, who was also abused and has been placed in foster care along with a 7-year-old sibling.

After being sentenced to probation for both of the first two arrests, Benavidez's 2011 case led to a year in prison.

"The defendant has a significant history of substance abuse and related illegal activity which has continued unabated despite legal intervention," the report concludes. "Until he gains some maturity and recognizes his legal predicaments have been self-inflicted, he appears likely to resume substance abuse and a marginal lifestyle upon release from mandatory incarceration."

He was released from prison in March 2012. Now, according to the CPS report and a Tucson police press release, he is accused of inflicting injuries on Adyson that left her with "blood excreting from both ears, bite marks on both arms and right foot, scratches on neck and bruising on facial cheeks, forehead, neck, both legs, back and abdomen."

These are the sort of incidents Gov. Jan Brewer was trying to reduce when she formed the Arizona Child Safety Task Force in October 2011. Perhaps the most significant step that group recommended was the formation of an Office of Child Welfare Investigations to investigate top-priority cases.

We don't yet know how Adyson's case ranked when CPS looked into it, nor what the agency knew about Benavidez.

All we know is that the agency has been overworked and underperforming for years, and is just now crawling back to a level of staffing that might ensure a minimum level of protection. The Legislature has approved spending $4.4 million for CPS to hire 50 additional employees, and Brewer's budget includes several requests to fund child-protection efforts.

An additional $13 million would hire 150 more investigative caseworkers; $5 million would boost the number of foster families in Arizona ,and $10 million would maintain the caseload of children in the Department of Economic Security's child-care program.

Even that may not be enough to prevent deaths such as Adyson's, Dr. Mary Rimsza told me Friday.

"When the caseload for the CPS workers is so high, they can't closely monitor the families that they should," she said. "We need to fully fund the prevention programs that we used to have in place."

Rimsza, a Tucson pediatrician, heads the 20-year-old Arizona Child Fatality Review Program, which examines every child death reported in Arizona annually.

In that process, she gets a detailed look at CPS, police and medical-examiner's reports.

Home visits and substance-abuse programs for parents are key, she said. About two-thirds of deaths by child abuse (as opposed to accidents or sickness) occur in families with substance-abuse problems, she said.

But Arizona's not there yet. We're not even to the CPS staffing levels where we can feel secure that children who are in the system and endangered - children like Adyson - don't get killed anyway.

This toddler's death should remind us our work is far from done.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter.

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