Saturday, June 7, 2008

Tucson kids' deaths spur hearing on CPS concerns

Matthew Benson
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 26, 2007 12:00 AM

The deaths of Tucson siblings Ariana and Tyler Payne, ages 4 and 5, were uncommon.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths were anything but.

A broken home. Poverty. A father with a past of domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. A mother with allegations of meth use. And a Child Protective Services system that appeared overwhelmed and unwilling or unable to give the case the attention it needed. Believing the children were safer with their father than their mother, and despite a court order granting her custody, CPS recommended the children remain with him.
Less than a year later, in February, Ariana's body was found stuffed into a bin in a storage locker. Her brother was never found, though he is presumed dead. In custody and charged with first-degree murder in the case is their father, Christopher Payne, and his girlfriend, Reina Gonzales.

Rep. Jonathan Paton said the case, the focus of a House Government Committee hearing Tuesday, is illustrative of the dilemmas that CPS faces routinely.

In the wake of Ariana and Tyler's deaths, as well as that of another Tucson child, 5-year-old Brandon Williams, Paton hopes to offer the agency expanded power and resources, tied to additional accountability and transparency.

Specifically, the Tucson Republican would authorize CPS to require drug testing of parents in cases, such as with the Payne family, where the agency suspects but can't prove drug use. Drug or alcohol abuse is involved in three-quarters of all CPS cases, testified Lillian Downing, a CPS administrator in Pima County.

"If a parent is going to choose meth over their child," Paton said, "the state needs to be able to step in and force that parent to seek treatment or remove the child."

Paton would also open to the public the CPS case files of children killed or seriously injured. Those cases could be closed only with a court order. Currently, the opposite is true.

Other potential legislation would allow CPS to file missing-person reports for children who disappear, and would improve the agency's access to criminal background information through the Department of Public Safety.

CPS officials said understaffing is also critical. They cited case overload as a primary cause of two of the major oversights in the handling of the Payne case. First, the caseworker never obtained the 2003 divorce decree that gave the mother, Jamie Hallam, custody and denied the father visitation. The decree cited his past problems with drug use and domestic violence.

Three years later, CPS closed the case and ended its involvement with the family, even though the children were living with their father in violation of the court order. There had been no court hearing to transfer custody.

Downing noted CPS had no reason to believe the father was a threat to his children. But she also conceded, "In my opinion, we should have maintained the case open until the conclusion of the transfer of custody. We did not do that."

CPS officials wanted to keep the children with their father. They wanted to keep the family intact as much as possible.

Tracy Wareing, director of the state Department of Economic Security, said that's always the goal. And the push-pull between rescuing children from dangerous homes and unnecessarily breaking up families will surely be at the heart of any coming debate on CPS reforms.

"There's a really fragile balance there," said Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat who sat in on Tuesday's hearing. "I think (CPS) may have the balance right but just needs more funding to carry it out."