Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has pledged to overhaul the state's Child Protective Services division.
Rim country foster mother Cheri Greenwade -- who has had her own battles with CPS over the years --as made it her mission to see that Napolitano reaches that goal.
Greenwade's objections to the dictates of Gila/Pinal County CPS go back to 1996, shortly after she became a foster parent. Her most recent battle for the welfare of a child has led her to the justice system and the governor's office.
"I believe that most of the case managers and those who work closely with the kids genuinely want what's best for them, but it has been my experience that if you speak out about something and rub the higher-ups the wrong way, there is retribution, and the child is the one who suffers," Greenwade said.
Greenwade has seen some agonizing decisions made by CPS and has been outspoken. The most recent decision regarding her three-year-old foster child, "John," has stunned her.
"(John) was 2 1/2 years old when he came to us late one night in August 2001," Greenwade said. "He was filthy and frightened and could not speak an intelligible word."
Greenwade said John --ot his real name -- was plagued with night terrors for the first six months in her home, probably a result of the alleged abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological parents.
"His night terrors went on every half hour for the first six months he was with me and he would only calm down if he could touch me," Greenwade said.
Greenwade had John evaluated in Phoenix three times and he was considered to be "severely delayed."
"After six months of hard work and a lot of hugs and kisses, (John) was able to sleep in his own bed," Greenwade said, "And now that he's been with us for a-year-and-a-half, he is quite secure and has made huge strides."
In October of 2002, a court hearing severed the rights of John's biological parents; no relatives were located who were interested in caring for him.
While visiting her grandchildren in Pine, Greenwade's cousin, Kathy Hillebert stopped in Payson to have lunch with Greenwade, who had little John in tow. The two had an immediate connection.
"Our eyes met and it felt like we had an instantaneous bond," Hillebert said. "When (John) came for his first visit on our ranch, my husband, Mike, felt the same connection."
Hillebert, who had also been a certified foster and adoptive parent, had grown frustrated with the system and let her certification lapse, but as she spent more time with John, she and her husband decided to get recertified in the hopes of legally adopting him.
"(John) started spending the holidays with us and he really became a part of our family," Hillebert said.
Although CPS had approached the Greenwades and asked them if they would adopt John, Cheri believed her cousin, being younger and very bonded to John, would be an ideal placement for him.
"I told them that they should consider the Hilleberts as they were willing, ready and ‘significant others' in John's life, but that we would take him if he wouldn't be placed with them," Greenwade said.
She said she was told by CPS that if she wanted the Hilleberts to be considered, she would have to totally remove herself from consideration as a potential adoptive family.
According to the Greenwades' attorney, Chuck Walker, there is no legal requirement that current foster parents formally remove themselves from consideration as an adoptive placement.
In a meeting with John's case manager, Kristin Klee and her supervisor, Ramona Cameron, Greenwade made public the Hilleberts' desire to adopt John and to have his placement moved to their house while the long process of legal adoption was under way. Greenwade said CPS staff thought that was a positive development and encouraged the Hilleberts to spend time with John.
From then on, Greenwade and Hillebert, with what they understood to be the explicit permission of CPS, began arranging visits at the Hilleberts' 80-acre ranch in southeastern Arizona.
Adding to the family
In the meantime, the Hilleberts had taken in two foster children, girls, 4 and 12, who had been severely sexually abused. Having been in five different placements, the Hilleberts couldn't resist the girls Kathy described as "so traumatized they would barely speak."
"Kathy has a way with severely abused children," Greenwade said. "She has a lot of experience with sexually abused children and couldn't resist taking these little girls."
The Hilleberts did not see fostering the two girls as a hindrance to adopting John. Having other foster children in the home had never prevented previous placements for Hillebert or Greenwade.
"All foster children are victims of some type of abuse -- that's why they are in foster care," Greenwade stated.
Things were looking promising for the Hilleberts and they were eagerly awaiting John's Christmas visit, but shortly before, CPS called the visit off.
"They did not want John to get too attached to the Hilleberts," Greenwade said.
That assertion appeared to contradict what John's case manager had been encouraging them to do, and an ominous sign to Greenwade and Hillebert.
A Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), whose job is to focus only on the child's interest, had just finished a letter describing an "obvious loving bond" between John and the Hilleberts.
The CASA's letter referenced a positive report by the Hilleberts' licensing specialist.
"I believe that since Kathy and Mike are characterized as loving parents, experienced in fostering children, able to provide a stable home and since (John) is already bonded to them in a positive way, they should be approved as (John's) adoptive parents," the CASA said in the report.
The CASA specifically recommended that the adoptive placement with the Hilleberts be "expedited" and he be placed in their home immediately. She also stated, "It has been alleged that there is some animosity toward Cheri by CPS due to a situation unrelated to (John) or his care. I fear that there is a possibility that (John) will get caught in the middle of that snarl, to his detriment."
The letter, and other documents, were to be presented to the court Jan. 16. This was the opportunity for the Hilleberts to step forward as a "significant other" and request that John become their foster child and later their adoptive child.
"CPS canceled that hearing on Jan. 15 and we were told that they could not place John across district lines, which is absolutely false," Greenwade said.
CPS then conducted what is called a "red folder staffing," a special conference, which according to court documents filed by Walker, is not provided for in the DES manual, "unless there is to be a consideration of numerous potential adoptive family placements with no prior relationship to the child."
Furthermore, Greenwade, who is legally entitled to be present at the red folder staffing, was only allowed inside for 15 minutes to present the child, and then was excluded from the remainder of the proceedings, according to Walker.
On Jan. 30, the Hilleberts were devastated when they received a call from the DES office in Phoenix and were told that another family had been selected for John's adoptive placement.
The basis of the CPS decision was the risk that John might be victimized by one of the girls the Hilleberts were caring for and that the elementary school that John would attend in Cochise County could not meet his educational needs. John's case manager stated she could not comment on the decision and referred the Roundup to the agency's public relations department for comment.
According to Liz Barker, a public relations representative for DES, they "cannot comment on the case due to confidentiality issues."
In a letter, Martha Haskell, the therapist for the two girls, addressed the CPS concern that the girls "could be future predators" and stated that she "is not aware at all of the children acting out sexually with others."
Deputy Legal Defender Benna Troop, who has represented the two girls, stated in a letter to DES, "They are two of the gentlest children I have ever met. They are sweet, soft-spoken and very well-behaved," Troop wrote. "Since I have been their lawyer, they have had contact with other children in many different settings, including several schools and homes, as well as the Cochise County Children's Shelter. Neither has ever acted out sexually or been violent towards each other, or towards any other child. They are victims, not perpetrators."
Contrary to CPS's contention, a letter from Apache Elementary states that the school has access to whatever is necessary to satisfy any potential special needs that John might have.
Greenwade continues to believe this decision regarding John is more about retribution toward her than what is best for her foster child. She has not only hired an attorney, but has contacted the governor's office with the details of John's case. A letter signed by David Kent, a representative from the governor's office, assured Greenwade that the "issues raised would be addressed promptly."
Pati Urias, deputy director of communications for Gov. Napolitano, refused to comment on the case, but referred to actions Napolitano is taking with regard to CPS and DES.
"There is a lot of work being done on the two agencies," Urias said. "The governor has directed a team of individuals to see how they can be improved."
"I am not a paranoid person by any stretch of the imagination," Greenwade said, "But I have spoken up too many times and exposed things that were not in the child's best interest, and made people accountable for their actions, and now John is paying for it."
Greenwade said that she is not alone in her frustrations with the child welfare system. She and Hillebert, with the help of their attorney, have taken steps to halt any further actions by CPS.
In the meantime, John remains in the Greenwades' home, unaware that his "two mommies" are waging this battle on his behalf.