We’re used to seeing how risky it can be for a child to stay with no-good parents.
That’s because time and again over the last decade, we’ve learned of local kids whose families were under the scrutiny of the state child-welfare agencies but ended up dead at the hands of their parents anyway.
Ariana, 4, and Tyler Payne, 5, siblings, died in 2007.
Michael Ibarra, 6, died in 2010.
Za’Naya Flores, 22 months, died in 2012.
Roman Barreras, 2, died in 2014.
These are just a few of the cases that received significant attention from reporters, but there were others, here and elsewhere in Arizona. They conditioned the public, legislators and child-protective workers to react conservatively to avoid death and scandal. Taking kids out of questionable homes seems the safe alternative.
The Department of Child Safety’s predecessor agency, Child Protective Services, removed just 7,708 as recently as 2009. During the year that ended Sept. 30, the state removed 11,810 children — and that was a decrease from the previous year. Arizona still removes children at a higher rate than almost every other state.
But the story of a 5-year-old girl, still clinging to life at Banner-University Medical Center and reported in the Star last Sunday by Patty Machelor, shows there’s another side to those decisions: The risk that life outside a child’s borderline home may be worse than it is inside. She was first in the foster home of a sex offender, then scalded nearly to death, allegedly by the woman who adopted her, Samantha Osteraas.
The girl was taken from a home where her biological mother was addicted to drugs but nonetheless worked diligently at the program assigned her by the court in order to keep her parental rights. She had one egregious mistake — she let the girl’s father see her without court-required supervision from outside agencies — and made a bad impression on an important person.
“The parent-child relationship psychologist testified against me at trial and said I was incapable of supporting my daughter’s emotional needs,” Michelle Tremor-Calderon told me Friday. “She said that I wasn’t able to support her emotional needs because I told my daughter not to feel sad. I didn’t want her to feel sad.”
The issue, she said, was how Tremor-Calderon dealt with her daughter when her daughter was leaving supervised visits to return to her foster family.
At the time, her foster father was a Sierra Vista man who has since been imprisoned for sex crimes against children.
So, the system took Tremor-Calderon’s daughter away because she wasn’t, in their view, dealing well enough with the emotions of a child who may have been suffering sexual abuse at the home she was about to return to.
Neither authorities nor documents confirm whether the girl was a victim of her foster father, David Frodsham, but Tremor-Calderon was reporting to officials at the time that she suspected abuse. She thinks they held that against her as well.
“I tried to protect her. I brought up many concerns,” she said. “They even accused me of making false reports to the police accusing them of sexual abuse. I was right the whole time. I knew it.”
The decision to sever a parent’s right to raise a child is one of the most intrusive state powers that exists — in my mind it’s about on par with taking a life. In Arizona, it’s governed by state laws that say what situations allow a judge to sever the relationship. Reunification remains the goal in every case, but it’s not always possible.
In other words, it’s not a “judgment call,” as Presiding Pima County Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Quigley told me.
“Judges have to determine what the facts are, then apply the facts to the law,” she said. “You can’t use your gut.”
And yet, retired Judge Hector Campoy, who led the Juvenile Court until 2010, said a judge never knows how it’s going to turn out and must use some judgment.
“You’re really condemning a relationship, saying that it’s fatally flawed, and that the benefit to the child is so marginal that you’re going to pretend this biological relationship doesn’t exist,” he said. “Yet you know what awaits the child around the corner isn’t necessarily going to be a bed of roses.”
Foster parents receive background checks and other security reviews before they are allowed to have foster children. So do potential adoptive parents. And yet not every risk factor can be detected, as Frodsham’s case shows.
Campoy said he was on the bench long enough to see that some kids whose parental relationships he severed never got into a permanent home, or ended up in abusive homes. Some went from foster home to foster home until they turned 18 and were emancipated.
“There’s always been a tension between reunification and creating a new, safe placement,” he said.
It’s easy to see after a parent kills a child that the child should have been removed, and why officials would be anxious to keep that from happening again. Yet it’s harder to see — except in disturbing cases like the scalded 5-year-old — whether removal worked out better for the child.