Laurie Roberts, The Republic | azcentral.com
When Maya Koistinen was smothered in 2013, Child Protective Services reported that there was nothing to see here, nothing the agency could have done to save the child.
Yet CPS had been called to the Koistinen home six times between 2007 and 2012 to check out reports that the child’s mentally ill mother was threatening her children. CPS had an open file on the family at the time of Maya’s death.
When Angel Rodriguez was beaten to death in 2014, the newly created Department of Child Safety reported that there was nothing to see here, nothing it could have done to save the child.
Yet Angel spent most of his short life in foster care. He died only after DCS returned him to his birth mother and her live-in boyfriend.
In neither case can I tell you what went wrong or, more importantly, how to fix it. Arizona law still allows the state’s child-welfare agency to legally paper over far too many of its foul-ups and failures.
That, however, could be about to change.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee is running a bill that would require DCS to own up when a child is badly injured or dies while the agency should have been watching.
“When a child dies or is grievously injured, the public and policy makers need to understand why…,” the Phoenix Republican told me. “Transparency is key to policy decisions regarding this agency.”
In fact, transparency has always been a key – and too often, missing — ingredient.
In 2008, the Legislature tried to clear the windows, decreeing that no longer could CPS hide its involvement in cases of fatalities and near fatalities. The agency immediately pounced on a gaping loophole in that law – the part that said CPS must release all records “involving the child and the current alleged abusive or neglectful parent, guardian or custodian.”
And so DCS can hide what it did – or didn’t do – for the Koistinen children.
Maya was the ninth child, born in 2013 to a mother who had repeatedly threatened or attempted to harm her children since 2007, according to police and court records.
CPS officials eventually admitted to me that the agency had been called six times about the Koistinen kids. Six times. And five times the agency walked away. The final call in 2012 – from a mental health professional concerned for the children’s safety – was still open a year later, when Maya was born.
Yet, according to agency’s website: “Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS) had received no prior reports alleging abuse or neglect of Maya Koistinen by Nina Koistinen.”
That’s not so surprising, given that Maya was only six days old when she died. Maya’s mother pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was put on probation.
Angel Rodriguez lasted a little longer than Maya. He was put in foster care soon after he was born. He endured two open-heart surgeries but couldn’t survive reunification. His heartbroken foster parents tell me he was sent home last June to his mother and her live-in boyfriend, George Ramon Hernandez, Jr.
This, just a few weeks after Hernandez was arrested for aggravated assault. It seems he became angry and choked his stepmother during an argument over how he was disciplining his 4-year-old brother.
Hernandez pleaded guilty last September. Three weeks later, Angel was severely beaten. According to Phoenix police, Hernandez was babysitting while the child’s mother was at work and well, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Angel Rodriguez died the next day at the ripe old age of 19 months. Hernandez is charged with child abuse though further charges could come once prosecutors get the results of an autopsy.
Angel’s foster parents are devastated. “How could they send him back to where there was domestic violence?” the foster father asked me late last year.
I’m going to make a guess that the agency didn’t bother to check the boyfriend’s background before returning Angel to his mother. (Thus comes another Brophy McGee bill: HB 2640, which would require DCS to conduct a criminal background check on everyone in a home before a child can be returned.)
But there’s no way for the public to know what went wrong. A DCS spokeswoman wouldn’t even confirm that the agency had dealings with the child.
“DCS has received no prior reports of abuse or neglect involving Angel Rodriguez and George Hernandez,” its website says.
HB 2166 would make it easier for us to get the real story.
Instead of requiring DCS to release records involving the child and the alleged abuser, Brophy McGee’s bill proposes to open records involving the child or the alleged abuser.
The bill has cleared the House and is awaiting final approval in the Senate.
There isn’t much (or anything?) that the Legislature has done this year to improve the lives of children. This bill is that rare and much-appreciated exception.
An opportunity to demand accountability, and more importantly to demand that we get it right, for the next Maya or Angel, the one whose life may literally depend upon it.