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Advocating Reform is Criminal
April 9, 2007 permalink
When the State of Arizona threatened Robin Scoins with prosecution for asking the legislature to change child protection laws, Richard Wexler tried to get press coverage:
Weeks after I let NCCPR’s “Arizona List” of journalists know what Hershberger was doing, only New Times reported the story. I’ve found not a word in any major daily; certainly not the state’s largest daily, The Arizona Republic. It was encouraging when the Republic columnist who most strongly supports using CPS to tear apart impoverished families briefly expressed an interest in the story – but nothing came of it.
— from today's entry in Richard Wexler's blog
The two articles below describe Robin Scoins child protection case, and the effort to prosecute her.
Suffer the Children
By Sarah Fenske, Published: October 26, 2006
Portions of this article not relating to Robin Scoins have been deleted by Dufferin VOCA
Robin Scoins admits that her case, too, had its complications. She knows it was ridiculous not to realize she was pregnant until just weeks before giving birth.
But what happened after that wasn't just ridiculous, it was a nightmare: a classic example of how faulty evidence — pushed by a caseworker without the time to do her homework — can trump the facts.
It started after the birth of Scoins' third child, a boy. Then 35, Scoins was seriously depressed. She had good reason: Her then-boyfriend was an alcoholic, she says, and had been abusive in the past. The relationship was on its last legs. And Scoins' oldest son, then 14, had been diagnosed with a host of mental-health problems.
The doctor at Southwest Behavioral Health Services put Scoins on heavy-duty antidepressants, according to records provided to New Times by Scoins' lawyer, Scott Ambrose.
For the seven months that Scoins saw counselors at Southwest, her doctors reported that she was anxious, worried about her older boy, and depressed about her relationship ending, records show.
But they never once suggested that she was a bad parent. And they never noted a suspicion of drug use.
Then Scoins found out she was pregnant again. Very, very pregnant.
She'd gained weight with her previous pregnancy, so she was already heavier than usual. She complained to her doctors about nausea, and irregular periods, but records show that she assumed it was a side effect from the meds.
So in early September 2003, Scoins found out she was pregnant, and on September 27 her little boy was born — two months early, weighing only three and a half pounds.
And that's when Scoins, who insists she'd never used illegal drugs, tested positive for amphetamines.
Even the hospital's own test results warn that antidepressants, like the ones Scoins was using, can create a "false positive" for amphetamines. So can cold medicine, which she'd also been on.
Not only did the baby test negative for everything, but Scoins subsequently passed two more drug tests.
No matter. When Scoins' boy (called C.Q. in court papers to protect his privacy) was big enough to leave the hospital in November, Scoins didn't get a call to pick him up. Instead, a CPS worker left her a note.
CPS had taken the baby.
The reason: According to the caseworker, Scoins had "tested positive for methamphetamines."
Amphetamines are present in any number of drugs, not just crystal meth. But while CPS caseworkers deal with thousands of meth-related cases in the course of a year, the staffer on Scoins' case didn't seem to realize that. Nor did she acknowledge that Scoins' amphetamine "positive" was in dispute.
Instead, CPS's report claimed that Scoins was a drug addict. The caseworker wrote that she'd "abused substances for a long period of time" — an absurd claim for which the worker offered no supporting documentation. The report also claimed that Scoins had been homeless and living in a car. Again, completely false.
Even worse, in the same report, the caseworker claimed that Scoins' baby had yet to be tested for drugs.
That wasn't true. C.Q.'s tests were complete within days of his birth, two months before. He was negative for all drugs.
Taking C.Q. amounted to a rush to judgment that may have been triggered by good intentions — but doesn't hold up to scrutiny today.
Scoins was devastated at losing her baby.
"I was just a mess," Scoins says. "I kept thinking, there's some mistake. I've never used drugs; they must have me confused with someone else. When they find out, this will all be over. But that never happened."
Instead, CPS only let Scoins see C.Q. during supervised visits. And Scoins' caseworker filed paperwork to take away her other three children, too.
Ultimately, the agency dropped its threat; when C.Q. was nine months old, CPS finally returned him to his mother. But that was only thanks to an attorney friend who handled Scoins' case for free.
"I probably would not have my son back today without that," she says.
Throughout a three-hour interview with New Times at the public library in Surprise, Scoins' two youngest boys interrupt frequently to show their mother books, pester for her library card, and ask for help with the computer. They have a warm rapport; Scoins is affectionate with them, and they clearly adore her in return.
Since her battle for C.Q., Scoins founded the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute and devotes much of her time to helping families across the state fighting CPS. She doesn't get paid, yet she estimates she easily spends more than 60 hours a week taking their calls, helping them with paperwork, even showing up in court to offer an assist.
She knows the dark side of Napolitano's push for safety first. She's lived it.
"This wasn't even a case where they took the kid and asked questions later," says her attorney, Ambrose, disgusted. "In this case, they didn't even ask questions."
Source: Phoenix New Times
Public Enemy Number One
She went after CPS -- but now the state may be coming after her
By Sarah Fenske, Published: March 22, 2007
Robin Scoins is the perfect face for the argument against Arizona Child Protective Services. And she believes that's exactly why she's drawn the ire of state representative Pete Hershberger.
Three years ago, Scoins lost her newborn son to CPS custody. The agency claimed, falsely, that she'd tested positive for crystal meth; it took nine months to sort out what proved to be a sloppy mistake and get her little boy out of foster care.
Today, Scoins devotes her time to parenting her four kids — and to fighting CPS. As the founder, executive director, and sole staffer of the Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute, she helps families with their custody battles, inveighs against legislative efforts to increase CPS funding, and pushes for laws that increase parental rights.
She's had some victories. Typically, the Legislature will renew an agency's mandate for 10 years; with Scoins on the attack last year, CPS's parent agency, the Department of Economic Security, was renewed for only two. She was also able to draw attention to social workers who raised complaints about the agency's operations in Kingman (see "Suffer the Children," October 26, 2006).
And Scoins knows how to work the bully pulpit. If nothing else, her story provides great political cover for CPS critics like Senator Karen Johnson, a Mesa Republican. It can be difficult, politically, to criticize an agency that fights child abuse. It's a lot easier when you have an example of a non-abusive mom, like Scoins, caught in its bureaucratic net.
But despite her success at the Capitol, and despite the fancy title, Robin Scoins is no Jack Abramoff. She lives on Social Security and does her advocacy work from the bedroom of her Section 8 apartment — because, as she explains, "I don't even have a kitchen table." She has no funding, not even from the families she advocates for, although sometimes they'll help out by babysitting. She's never wined or dined a legislator in her life.
But is she a lobbyist? That's the question that could cost her up to $1,000 or even a misdemeanor conviction.
Under Arizona law, lobbyists must register every two years and pay a $25 registration fee. They must also file annual reports.
Scoins never did any of that. And last month, Representative Pete Hershberger, a Republican from Tucson, wrote the secretary of state to request that the office investigate whether Scoins is "properly registered for the activities she is undertaking." He then forwarded the letter to the attorney general and Maricopa County attorney.
Hershberger chairs the House's Human Services Committee and is one of the Legislature's most outspoken CPS supporters. While many Republicans harshly criticized the agency's Napolitano-era mandate to prioritize child safety above family preservation, Hershberger applauded it. When Napolitano asked for $34 million for the agency in 2003's landmark "CPS reform" special session, House Republicans countered with $1.7 million. Hershberger crafted the compromise that got CPS $17 million instead.
As Hershberger pointed out in his letter, Scoins has signed in at committee meetings as a representative of her family rights institute. The secretary of state's "lobbyist handbook" suggests that could be enough, in and of itself, to trigger a violation, although an actual penalty would require Scoins to have "knowingly" failed to follow the rules.
Joseph Kanefield, the state election director for Secretary of State Jan Brewer, acknowledges that complaints like Hershberger's are highly unusual. "I can tell you that it's the first one we've gotten this session," he says. It'll be up to his office to determine whether there's "reasonable cause" to suspect that a violation occurred. If there is, he says, the case would go to Goddard.
Kanefield sent a letter to Scoins on March 8 with two questions: Was she paid by the family advocacy institute to lobby the Legislature? And had she spent any money to woo legislators — say, buying them lunch?
Scoins has done neither, as she explained in her reply to Kanefield last week.
"At no time have I ever presented myself as a lobbyist, and in fact stated in public hearings, that I am NOT a lobbyist and I am not paid by anyone to speak in support of or in opposition of any bill," she wrote. "I have not been paid to provide testimony at the request of a legislator as a citizen expert on CPS issues. I am a mother, who volunteers time to help others exercising my right to participate in government processes."
Kanefield says it's too early to say whether Scoins must register just because she represents a group. The law is complicated; Kanefield doesn't want to comment on the merits of the complaint until his office's investigation is done.
But others are crying foul on Hershberger.
Dan Pochoda, legal director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU, says he's waiting for the secretary of state's decision before he gets involved. But if lobbying laws are used to stop a citizen from speaking in front of a committee, even if that citizen is part of a bigger group, he believes it "would raise significant First Amendment issues."
And Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and an outspoken critic of CPS, calls Hershberger's complaint "absolutely unheard of."
"Most legislators," Wexler says, "at least pick on someone their own size. I've never heard of anyone going after a grassroots activist like this."
Even if Hershberger is right about the law, it doesn't help that he and Scoins disagree so vehemently on the issues. If nothing else, this looks like an attempt to harass a dissenting voice, and one of a low-income single mom at that.
Nor does it help that, in the private sector, Hershberger is getting paid by a company with strong ties to CPS. Before he was elected to the House, Hershberger was a full-time employee at a Tucson social service agency called Open Inn. Tax records show that Open Inn gets the bulk of its funding — more than $3 million annually — from government contracts. As Hershberger acknowledges, some of those contracts are with CPS's parent agency.
It's not clear just how much he's being paid. The personal disclosure form that Hershberger has on file with the secretary of state shows only that the total is over $1,000. He claims he hasn't billed Open Inn in months and that the company's ties don't factor into how he feels about CPS. (And what he's doing is not a legal conflict of interest, according to Arizona's rather lax laws regarding legislators.)
Hershberger insists that his letter wasn't intended to silence a critic.
"I was just curious," he says. "My understanding is if she's representing someone other than just herself, paid or unpaid, she has to register. That's to protect the public and let them know who's representing who. . . . Now it's up to them. If she didn't do anything wrong, okay, I'm done with it."
Richard Wexler, for one, doesn't buy it. If Hershberger was just "curious," he asks, why not just talk to Scoins and ask about her funding?
"That's what he would do if he was curious," Wexler says. "But if he wanted to bully her, he'd send a letter to the secretary of state — and then he'd forward it to the county attorney."
Details: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 602-440-1130.
Source: Phoenix New Times
Addendum: Richard Wexler reports on some help for Robin.
April 16, 2007
THE ARIZONA ACLU STEPS IN
The Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona has written to the Attorney General’s office on behalf of Robin Scoins in connection with the controversy discussed in the previous post to this blog. In the letter, ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Daniel Pochoda writes:
“We are troubled by the manner and results of this process and are assisting Ms. Scoins at this stage. Application of the lobbying registration requirements in this context has First Amendment implications and will likely result in chilling rights of speech and to petition the government.”
Source: Richard Wexler's blog