EDITOR NOTE: The reporter has omitted some details of this case and changed the name of the girl because the judge who presided over the parental severance hearing threatened to pursue a contempt charge, even though much of the information is available via public records. This is Part 1 of 2.
Little Girl Jane apparently never knew her father. And now the State of Arizona has stripped her mother of all parental rights. Not because of drugs, not because of a filthy home or lack of food or ongoing abuse.
The reason, according to Judge John Kelliher of the Cochise County Superior Court, is that the mother was “shamefully” negligent on Oct. 5, 2019 when her daughter ingested an undetermined quantity of drain cleaner from a bottle stored with a defective cap behind a toilet for several months.
That neglect well over a year ago was enough, according to Kelliher’s ruling last month, to sever the mother’s parental rights and her contact with her two children, forever. Even though Arizona taxpayers spent tens of thousands of dollars for services approved by the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) for therapy, counseling, transportation, housing, and medical training for the mother to get the family reunified.
The mother declined to speak with Arizona Daily Independent about her experience with DCS or the court system, citing her attorney’s advice. The attorney, Roger Contreras, said he is concerned anything said by Little Girl Jane’s family could negatively affect a planned appeal of Kelliher’s severance ruling.
The attorney also said he was concerned the family could be charged with contempt of court for discussing the case publicly, even though most court proceedings involving dependent children are open to the public.
What many attorneys point to is ARS 8-525, which places a limitation on any non-party attendees. The law states simply that the judge shall “admonish all attendees that they are prohibited from disclosing any information that may identify the child and the child’s siblings, parents, guardians and caregivers, and any other person whose identity will be disclosed during the proceeding.”
It also requires the judge to explain contempt of court to all attendees “and the possible consequences of violating an order of the court.”
Any person who remains in the court after the admonition “must abide by the court’s order prohibiting disclosure of that information,” and failure to do so can result in a charge of contempt of court.
But there are a few problems with the brevity and vagueness of the admonition law, mainly that at first glance it appears to prohibit public attendees from ever disclosing to anyone the names of state employees, attorneys, court employees, or even the judge involved in a specific case.
Which of course leads to a lack of oversight and is counterintuitive to the presumption that state actions undertaken in the name of the state should allow for some accountability.
However, public notices of upcoming dependency case hearings not only name the judge but also all of the attorneys involved in a case. And the children’s names are included in legal notices published in newspapers.
Another problem with the admonition as read in Kelliher’s courtroom is that it often goes well beyond the statutory language and can last several minutes. And it leaves attendees and family members in a tenuous position – complain about a perceived misjustice and risk being thrown in jail for speaking out.
The problem with the judge’s vaguely worded edict is that it does not take into consideration the fact various public records exist related to the Oct. 5, 2019 poisoning incident and the family’s dependency case.
Which brings us back to Little Girl Jane.
The same admonition was read at the beginning of a recent three-day hearing to decide whether the girl’s mother -and unknown father- would forever lose custody and all rights to her two children through a process called severance.
(The likely father was identified in public documents and in court, but he did not respond to notices of a severance hearing on the grounds of abandonment. The same notification process was conducted for any “John Doe” who might be the children’s father.)
Severance is the most extreme- and final- step DCS can pursue related to parental rights.
The mother previously did not dispute allegations that her children were dependent under state law, thus putting their ultimate care and decision-making in the hands of others. The reason for the dependency was the alleged neglect for allowing the drain cleaner to be accessible to a young child and for the mother’s resistance to allegations that perhaps a family member forcibly poisoned the little girl.
But the mother’s rights were still officially in place while efforts were made to reunify the family. She had regular visitation with both children. She attended therapy, counseling, and job training. She underwent medical training to help care for her daughter. And she secured regular employment despite issues with Covid-19.
As early as June 2020, case reports noted the “last barrier” to family reunification was the mother’s housing situation which was resolved a few months later.
According to the mother’s attorney, going into the new year the mother continued to believe reunification was the goal shared by DCS and the children’s two court appointed attorneys.
But on Jan. 21, DCS and its legal team from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office filed a petition for severance, citing the fact the children had been dependent on the state for nine months in state care and for 15 months in state care, and that neglect had been involved in the reason for their dependency.
The only neglect cited was the October 2019 poison incident.
“The goal post has changed multiple times,” attorney Contreras argued to Kelliher in an effort to stop the severance hearing and reinstate a reunification plan.
But the judge, who continually called the mother’s attitude and conduct throughout the last 15 months “shameful” and made a dismissive comment about the mother being employed by a family member, said the severance trial would go forth.
Meanwhile, the DCS position in support of severance centered on the fact that for months the mother refused to believe the poisoning incident could have been the result of a nefarious act. It did not matter that an investigation by the Sierra Vista Police Department found no physical or medical evidence to support that Little Girl Jane had been intentionally poisoned.
The police report written by Det. Thomas Ransford noted that upon the girl’s admission at a local hospital numerous medical professionals came in contact her. None saw or heard anything suggesting the girl did not intentionally take a drink from the accessible bottle.
In fact, there was no evidence of splatter burn pattern that may be expected if the girl tried to spit out the liquid while someone held her face. There were also no burns on the outside of her mouth or lips.
Even the staff of a Tucson trauma hospital did not suspect any abuse when the girl was airlifted in. But a few days later everything changed. And the chances of the mother getting her family back together would hinge on her reaction to an accusation her seriously ill young daughter allegedly made to a DCS employee in the pediatric ICU.
What happened in that hospital room calls into question DCS’s practice of not having witnesses in attendance or recording interviews with children, particularly when the child is in critical condition.
The interview also led the experienced Sierra Vista detective to state under oath he had serious doubts with how DCS handled the case.
PART 2: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Someone Poisoned Little Girl Jane