Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bud Foster KOLD News 13 Political Specialist

By Josh Brodesky / Arizona Daily Star

In October 2006, Jamie Hallam, the mother of the late Ariana Payne and her missing brother Tyler, gave birth to a baby who had methamphetamine in her system.

Child Protective Services workers almost immediately placed the newborn in temporary foster care.

But when Hallam did not test positive for methamphetamine, the baby was returned to her and there was little follow-up. Over the following month, a caseworker made a handful of phone calls — never speaking with Hallam — and then closed the case.

The failure to make face-to-face contact, much less speak with Hallam or visit her home, goes against CPS' policy for investigating and managing cases of substance-exposed newborns and raises questions about how safe the home environment was at the time.

Moreover, no one ever checked on the welfare of Ariana and Tyler, who were in Hallam's custody but were presumed to be living with their father, who is now accused of killing them.

It wasn't until the death of 4-year-old Ariana and the presumed death of 5-year-old Tyler were made public in February and March that CPS returned its attention to the baby — removing her from Hallam's home in March even though police have never connected Hallam to her children's deaths.

Because of confidentiality laws, CPS spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez said officials could not speak about the handling of the case involving Hallam's baby.

However, speaking generally, Janice Mickens, program administrator with CPS, said while the policy does state that a case manager should make face-to-face contact with the family and investigators should visit the home, in low-risk cases where families do not cooperate the only option is to close the case.

Actions versus policy

Within a day of testing positive for methamphetamine, Jamie Hallam's daughter was placed with temporary foster parents.

Although Hallam denied using any drugs, CPS specialist Maria Del Sagrario Ramirez was skeptical, documents show.

For example, when Hallam at first refused to take a drug test, Ramirez asked her why she would refuse if she was clean.

CPS' policy manual says investigators are supposed to visit the newborn's home if the baby is hospitalized at the time of the report. But there is no indication Ramirez visited Hallam's home or attempted to check on Ariana and Tyler.

Ultimately, Hallam did not test positive and the allegation was found to be unsubstantiated, and her baby was returned to her after a few days. Hallam was given a referral for counseling, but she never made her appointments. Services along the lines of counseling, parenting classes and substance-abuse prevention were offered to the family, but Hallam never followed up on them.

Meanwhile, the case was transferred to Augusta Olaore.

CPS policy states, "At a minimum, the case must be opened for services to ensure the newborn's continued safety and the family's participation in services. While the case is open for services, maintain face-to-face contact with the parent and newborn ... in the home at least once a month."

But there is no indication in case notes that anyone at CPS ever made face-to-face contact with Hallam or the baby. In November, Olaore made a handful of phone calls and sent Hallam a letter, outlining her unreturned phone messages. She then closed the case.

Strangely, a closure form in early November from Our Family Services, which would have provided the "in-home services" to Hallam and her baby, states the family's needs were met even though Hallam never pursued services.

Again, speaking generally, Mickens said case managers "make every effort" to visit the child's home by the time the child is discharged from the hospital to see if there are any outstanding risks. She also noted that in-home service providers should also be checking the home environment.

But what about cases like Hallam's, when the family is not embracing in-home services?

"We cannot force families to participate in those services even though we may in our gut believe that family is going to come back to our attention," she said.

Considering the handling of the case, state Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican leading upcoming legislative hearings on CPS, said he would like to see some of the agency's policies, such as making face-to-face contact with a child's caregiver, written into law.

"Right now a lot of those things are in a rule, and maybe they should be in statute or law," he said. "There needs to be some tightening up."

Substance-exposed babies

It's unclear how many substance-exposed newborns CPS deals with, but the majority of CPS dependency cases in Pima County involve parents who are abusing substances, particularly methamphetamine.

At the close of 2006 there were 1,527 open-dependency cases in Pima County, and almost 70 percent of these involved parents who were using substances, according to the 2006 annual report for the Pima County Juvenile Court Center. Methamphetamine was the drug of choice for nearly half the parents.

Dr. Susan Stephens, medical director of the Comprehensive Medical & Dental Program, which provides healthcare to children in foster care, said newborns most often test negative for substances, but that doesn't mean substances aren't in their system.

Rather, she said, the testing thresholds for newborns were "arbitrary" amounts chosen in the 1980s by politicians hoping to show a drop in the number of substance-exposed babies.

The testing thresholds are the same for babies and adults.

"So it doesn't matter if we are looking at urine tests on a 300-pound man, 100-pound woman or a seven-pound baby, they are all the same," Stephens said.

As such, "When we have a positive urine screen on the baby, that baby is just totally intoxicated in whatever substance we are testing for," she said.

While it's less likely that a baby will test positive for substances, when one does test positive it's relatively common for a parent's test to be clean or at least inconclusive.

Urine tests on mothers will only identify drugs used a day or two before the test, and many drug users are adept at falsifying tests, Stephens said.

Still, Stephens said a child's positive test isn't any more valuable than a mother's test. It should be seen as a part of the larger decision-making process coupled with information about the child's home, siblings and the backgrounds of parents along with any ethical medical issues.

Ariana and Tyler

In February, Ariana Payne's decomposing body was found in a trash bin. Her 5-year-old brother, Tyler, has not been found but police believe he is dead.

Their father, Christopher Matthew Payne, and his girlfriend, Reina Gonzales, have been charged with murdering both children.

It's unclear when Ariana died, but police believe the death occurred between March and September.

In the case files for Hallam's baby, which are dated in October and November, there are a number of references to Ariana and Tyler living with their father in another part of Tucson.

"Ariana and Tyler Payne are with Chris Payne," one case note from Oct. 6 states.

At an Oct. 11 meeting where Hallam's baby was returned to her, it's also noted that two of Hallam's kids are with the father.

Case notes show no evidence there was any discussion about the welfare of Ariana and Tyler or if there were efforts to check on them even though they were still in the legal custody of Hallam. The children were living with their father at CPS' urging. When children are placed with a different caregiver, the agency's policy manual says they should be checked on once a month.

At a recent news conference, Ken Deibert, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, said CPS had no reason to check on Ariana and Tyler when the report about Hallam's baby was made because they were not living with Hallam at the time.

But Paton questioned that rationale.

"They had all the reason in the world to believe those children could have gone back to their mother," the legislator said. "The whole thing is illogical, and I honestly don't understand the actions in this case because it's being explained in hindsight.

"But as you walk through it as it happens you can only come to the conclusion that they didn't want to put time in to investigate," he said.

Paton is pushing to have hearings on the Payne case made public, and he and the agency's heads will be meeting this week to discuss that possibility.

Barker Alvarez, CPS' spokeswoman, said the agency will support open hearings provided they follow confidentiality laws designed to protect children, like Hallam's baby, from public embarrassment.

"In terms of CPS, we want to have the hearings be as open as possible and be able to share as much of the information to the public as possible," she said.

● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com.