My Story

Legally Abducted Children

Battling Child Protective Service

By James Donahue

It was 1997 and we were approaching the Christmas season before I moved from the Show Low newspaper office to a bureau in Springerville, Arizona. One of the last news stories I worked on in Show Low involved a young couple struggling to get their two daughters home for the holidays. They had been seized by agents for the Arizona Department of Child Protective Services.

It was a sad story about relatively uneducated people who struggled to maintain a meager existence on limited income, in one of the town's run-down trailer parks. They found solace in alcohol and got rowdy on occasion. A do-good neighbor complained about possible child abuse and that was all it took. Child Protective Services agents investigated and snatched the children from the home. In my personal research I found no evidence that the toddlers, both girls, were ever struck, molested, or in any way mistreated. Neighbors said that the only thing they noticed was that the parents got loud when they were drinking.

The battle to regain the children had been going on for more than a year. The mother's parents, who also lived in Show Low, had managed to gain custody of the girls, but this came with a price. A Circuit Court judge ruled that the children could not have contact with the parents, even though they lived in their grandparent's home about three blocks away. The prohibition meant that the family was prevented from any social contact. This included enjoying Christmas together.

It was a powerful Christmas story and it stirred a lot of attention. Attempts to get someone from Child Protective Service to answer questions about the case were snubbed. This made the story even more one-sided. I didn't know it at the time, but the story was the beginning of a long personal battle that I was about to wage against that state agency, on behalf of not just this family, but at least a dozen other parents who came to me with similar jaded stories.

I learned after moving into neighboring St. Joseph County that the problem was even more severe in that area. It was not long before I was contacted by an organized group of parents in Phoenix that was formed to fight state abuse of children by Child Protective Services. Members came from all over Arizona. The story quickly got a little too big for one small mountain bi-weekly newspaper to handle, although I gave it my best shot.

It is interesting to note that I began getting hate mail, much of it from one particular man living in St. Joseph, the county seat located about thirty miles from my office. I investigated and learned that this man was a minister of a local protestant church who was getting paid a great deal of money from the state for keeping numerous "abducted" children in his home. There were rumors that he was a pedophile, which of course made the potential story even more interesting.

This issue literally overpowered me. I found myself spending most of my time in Springerville dealing with it, talking to parents who had their children snatched from schools, from the street while walking home, and from their arms by state officials after complaints were filed.

I think my stories succeeded in making a small difference. I managed to force some top state Protective Services officials to meet with me and the parents of the Show Low family. We gathered in state offices in St. Joseph. I was allowed to review all of the evidence the state claimed to have against the family. After spending hours reading through stacks of paperwork, I found nothing to justify the seizure of the girls. The parents had a drinking problem. They joined Alcoholics Anonymous and claimed to be staying away from the booze. They were not child abusers. Within weeks after this story was published, the family got their girls back.

My stories also sparked an investigation by a state senator, a woman who represented our district. I moved back to Michigan and never knew the outcome of that investigation, however.

During all of my years of news reporting I have never seen such sorrow inflicted by a single government agency. I was convinced that many people were being paid a great deal of money to care for children snatched from homes of innocent people.

While I know there is a need for state agencies like Child Protective Services, I felt that many of the cases I encountered in Arizona went beyond the bounds of what the agency should have been doing. Many of the cases appeared to have involved money paid to care providers. The welfare of the children may have rarely been the issue.