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CPS Defies Disclosure Law

September 14, 2009 permalink

One policy that could facilitate reform in child protection is full disclosure in cases of child death, especially in an active protection case. California, Arkansas and Arizona have such laws, but foot-dragging makes them ineffective. The enclosed article about the late Schala Vera and several other dead children shows the futility of Arizona's disclosure law.



Who is CPS protecting: Children or themselves?

by Laurie Roberts - Sept. 9, 2009 12:00 AM, The Arizona Republic

On May 26, Schala Vera was taken to Chandler Regional Medical Center. Apparently, her mother feared the young child had been molested while living with relatives in another state. A social worker at the hospital had called Child Protective Services, reporting that the girl seemed uncomfortable around the mother's boyfriend.

I can't tell you what, if anything, CPS did. Despite having won two lawsuits that opened records, despite having watched the Legislature enact a law that's supposed to open CPS records, it seems more difficult than ever to get meaningful information about how well CPS is protecting kids.

But I can tell you this: Last week, Schala was beaten to death. Every inch of the 3-year-old's body was covered in cuts and bruises, some of them the shape of a belt buckle.

Both the mother and the inevitable live-in boyfriend have been arrested. Chandler police say the boyfriend, Dauntorian Sanders, admitted that both he and the mother had been hitting the child with a belt since June but that this time he lost control. (Documents obtained by The Republic indicate that he put tape on the belt's buckle to protect his hands during the beating).

Even after hearing the gruesome details of how her daughter died, the documents say Susan Witbracht - who, by the way, reported that Sanders would also hold Schala over the balcony by her feet as discipline - hugged her boyfriend and told him just how much she adores him.

This is why CPS is so critical to the children of this state. You can always replace a kid, I suppose, but a boyfriend, well, that's another thing altogether.

Sixteen Arizona children have died of abuse or neglect so far this year. I would love to tell you how many of those children died while CPS was supposed to be watching. But I can't.

The law says CPS must "promptly" provide summary information when a child dies or nearly dies of maltreatment and then "promptly" provide further details to anyone who asks, after consulting with prosecutors.

To its credit, CPS maintains a Web site to report those summary details. Just don't expect the report to be "prompt," and when it is eventually filed, don't look for any actual details.

Like the child's last name. Or the date the child died. Or how the child died. Or whether the child died while CPS should have been watching.

In the case of Schala Vera, CPS says it had no prior reports involving Witbracht or Sanders. That, however, doesn't mean that CPS wasn't involved with the child.

CPS spokesman Steve Meissner says the agency is following the law.

"All this is being done at the advice of our attorneys; that's the only thing I can tell you," he said. "I'm told this is what the law requires."

If so, then the law needs to be changed - again.

Consider the case of Natalia Santillan, a 3-year-old who died on April 7, beaten and burned, Peoria police say, by her uncle's live-in girlfriend, Ayrin Vick. As of Tuesday, CPS still hadn't posted summary information on Natalia's death. (An oversight, I was told). The case file - which took me more than a month to get - has so much information blacked out that it's hard to tell what CPS did - or didn't do.

A friend of the family has told me she made two calls to CPS.

"They never responded to me," she said. "I told them if they decided to take the baby, I would be more than happy to take her."

CPS says it had no prior reports that Vick was abusing Natalia. There were other reports that the child was being harmed. What CPS did about it, however, we will never know.

Consider the case of Rachel Green. CPS reported on Aug. 26 that a 1-year-old named Rachel died of neglect in Tucson and that Elisa and Shaun Green of Tempe were the "alleged perpetrators."

"CPS has no prior reports alleging abuse or neglect of Rachel by Elisa or Shaun Green," CPS reports on its Web site.

Yet the Arizona Daily Star reports that court records show the Greens - who live in Tucson, not Tempe - have had extensive dealings with CPS. Their children were taken from them because of failure to thrive but were returned last year, after the couple took parenting lessons and completed a CPS case plan.

The Star reports that court records say the parents continued to neglect their kids following their return and that CPS has now filed to sever their parental rights.

Rachel died on July 8, after she was left unattended in a bathtub with two siblings, both under age 4. Police said the mother was making pancakes while the father watched a movie.

I asked Meissner how CPS could say it had "no prior reports alleging abuse or neglect of Rachel by Elisa or Shaun Green" when the agency had reported continued neglect since the children's return in 2008.

He declined to comment, citing the need to consult with the prosecutor.

"We don't want to do anything that would hinder a prosecution and that means we need to be careful," he said.

Oh, I'm all for being careful. I just wonder what they're really trying to protect - a murder case or themselves?

Reach Roberts at or 602-444-8635. Read her blog at

Source: Arizona Republic