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Seattle Times Special Report | One of the most profound powers exercised by the state of Washington is the decision to take a child from its parents because of abuse or neglect. In an unprecedented look inside the dependency-court system, this is the story of one couple, Liz and Mike, and their daughter, Baby M.
Special Report: What's best for Baby M?
Times staff reporter
Baby M was a gift.
Born a month prematurely, with a tuft of her father's dark hair, she arrived no bigger than a loaf of bread.
Mike Testa peered into his daughter's eyes and beamed. She looks just like me, he said.
Mike, 37, had yearned for a family and badly wanted this child.
His girlfriend, Liz Campo, lay exhausted after 17 hours of labor at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
Liz, at 42, was a reluctant mother. But this baby was her chance to start a new life with a new man. The 5 ½-pound newborn was swaddled, and Liz held her to her chest.
On this day, Aug. 19, 2003, their dreams were within reach.
But the next day the euphoria began to fade. Traces of methamphetamine were found in Liz's blood. Hospital officials called the state's Child Protective Services.
Baby M was 2 days old when Mary Marrs, a veteran CPS investigator, showed up. Do you know why I am here? she asked Liz and Mike.
The couple rushed to explain themselves. The meth was a stupid mistake, Liz said. In a moment of grief, she'd smoked it a few days earlier, after her mother died.
Life had been particularly hard, they told Marrs. They had lost everything in a house fire. Then Mike took a three-story fall off a balcony. Unemployed and facing $50,000 in hospital bills, Liz and Mike ended up homeless. Mike even attempted suicide.
Liz already had three children from a previous marriage. Although she had recently sent her 6-year-old son to live with his grown siblings in California, she had never run afoul of CPS. I'm a good mother, she told Marrs.
But it was an easy call for CPS.
Show up in court, Marrs told Liz and Mike, and make your case to the judge. Until then, the baby can't leave the hospital.
Just like that, Liz and Mike lost their newborn child.
Mike was in a rage, but he reassured Liz with a promise he would repeat over and over: "We'll get her back. I refuse to lose."
Courtroom 5 in King County Juvenile Court is spare, with a judge's bench and just a few chairs for visitors. This is where the state wields what is known as "the civil death penalty," the power to break up a family.
More than 10 times a day on average, 4,000 times a year, Washington state exercises its power of "in loco parentis" to protect children by separating them from neglectful or abusive parents. In at least half of those cases, the children return home.
These decisions are made against the speeding clock of a child's life. Once a child becomes a ward of the state, parents have up to 15 months to show they're fit to care for their children, or they risk losing them.
The state must make a good-faith effort at helping parents like Liz and Mike overcome their obstacles, and must provide them lawyers.
Ultimately, though, the law says the "child's health and safety shall be the paramount concern."
It is a high-stakes gamble for the state. Err by being too conservative and demanding too much of the parent, and a family is destroyed. Err by being too lenient, and a child may die.
For 40 years, this process was done privately, in closed courtrooms. In 2003, a month before Baby M's birth, the state opened Washington's dependency-court hearings, giving the public its first look inside a system that spends nearly $500 million a year.
Nine days after the birth of their baby, Liz and Mike walked into Courtroom 5, haggard and anxious.
Mike wore black sweatpants that kept slipping off his hips. Liz was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans borrowed from Marrs.
This day has got to be a mistake, Liz said.
The state's lawyer attacked Liz and Mike's grim parenting credentials, recounting their admissions to Marrs. Mike once had a decade-long struggle with cocaine. And their home was the back of a Toyota pickup with 379,000 miles.
Why the hell did we tell Marrs all that, Mike thought.
Parents rarely speak at these hearings, but Mike shushed his public defender and stood to tell his tale of bum luck to Court Commissioner Hollis Holman.
Mike recounted the house fire, the fall that shattered his pelvis. And his suicide attempt? Slashing his wrists was a cry for help amid the pressure of poverty and a baby on the way, he said.
"I'm not a jerk," he said, choking up. "I'm not a drug addict anymore. I want to be a responsible dad."
Holman had a choice to make: Return the baby to Liz and Mike and order the state to provide them a therapist, or keep the baby in foster care.
"Mrs. Campo, I'm concerned your idea of mourning was to use crystal meth," she said. "Mr. Testa, I'm worried about your mental health."
For now, Holman said, the state needs to protect this baby. You can get her back, she told Liz and Mike, but you must pass random drug tests and find a place to live.
CPS, Holman said, must assess Mike's mental health and allow the couple to visit their baby.
With that, Baby M was no longer theirs. Winning her back could take months.
About the story of Baby M
The couple waived confidentiality, allowing The Times to interview their lawyers and Department of Social and Health Services social workers, and to review hundreds of pages of DSHS files.
In addition, The Times examined court files, police reports and medical records, and sat in on court hearings, visitations, counseling sessions and other meetings.
Reconstructed scenes were based on interviews and were confirmed by other sources or documents.
The Times agreed not to name Baby M or her foster parents, who are working to adopt her.
Stunned, Liz and Mike made their way toward the door. Without warning, a sheriff's deputy stopped Mike. "I've got good news and bad news," the deputy began. "I just saved money on my car insurance, but you're going to jail."
Mike was arrested on a warrant for failing to pay restitution on a 3-year-old forgery conviction.
Liz cried as she drove back to the hospital alone. She rocked and nursed her daughter for two hours until a foster parent showed up and took her baby away. With nowhere to go, Liz sneaked into an empty hospital room and fell asleep.
Liz first met Mike at a Ballard bar in 2002. She was on the rebound from a 19-year marriage. She found a job at a dry cleaners and was hopeful about a new start. She still wanted to become a veterinarian, something she had dreamed of at Shoreline High School. But Liz, who came from a family with seven kids, got pregnant at 17 and dropped out.
When Mike met her she still looked younger than her age and was looking for an uncomplicated guy, someone to make her laugh, provide a house and give her a normal life.
Mike was a talker. He told bawdy jokes and boasted of a wicked fastball, a construction job that once put him atop the Kingdome, and a knack for fixing anything. He had a relentless energy coiled in shoulders the width of an NFL linebacker.
"He filled my head with promises he'd get a job, we'd have a future, a house, and it would be wonderful," Liz would later say.
Mike had found his soul mate, and Liz found him charming and attentive. They moved into an apartment and Mike got a construction job pouring concrete in Bellevue.
Quickly, though, it became a struggle. Lost jobs. Bills. Evictions. Soon they were living in cheap motels and Mike's truck, sweating through a hot summer.
And Liz was pregnant.
Just before Baby M was born in 2003, Liz's two adult children drove up from California. They were afraid for their mother and 6-year-old brother, who was living with Liz and Mike.
"My mom would call me and cry. She was really depressed," her daughter Aleasha Campo would later say. "She was ashamed to admit a lot of stuff that happened."
The mother she knew had danced with her children to oldies and cooked garlicky chicken adobo. How had she become homeless?
With Liz's blessing, they took their little brother back home to California.
Liz's own childhood had been hard. Her mom left when she was 8 and her dad could be abusive. The physical abuse continued after she married. Her husband, she said, would hit her, to the point where she called police.
Mike, she said, was different. "He doesn't put me down or make me feel like I'm dumb. He's the first person who really listens to what I say."
Mike grew up in Marin County, Calif., his stepfather a firefighter, his mom a secretary. As a kid, he loved playing Little League baseball. But as a teenager he started using drugs and drifted away. It wasn't long before he was in and out of drug treatment and jail.
CPS telephoned Mike's parents in California soon after it took Baby M away. The state first reaches out to relatives to try to place a child. Would Mike's parents be willing to care for their new grandchild?
The couple flew up to spend a weekend with the baby. They flew home alone.
"They do not want to have anything to do with the father," a social worker wrote.
In a bland visiting room of CPS's Lower Queen Anne office, Mike hunched over his baby girl, nestled in a car seat. She was now 2 months old. "Oooh, you're so cute," he cooed.
Liz and Mike were now seeing her at least twice a week, though never without an "observation" worker there taking notes. The visits had been sporadic at first and Liz complained about not getting to see her baby. It's an issue with many parents like Liz and Mike who say CPS does not make these visits a priority.
On this day in October, Mike held his daughter like a football, his parenting unsure. Baby M started crying. "It's not my fault," he snapped, handing her to Liz.
Mike picked up the phone to try to find them a place to stay that night. They were sick of living in Mike's truck.
Liz sighed as she held a bottle for her baby. Mike will get better when he spends more time with his daughter, she said.
The baby had already been shuttled between two foster homes. She was first given to a 22-year-old with a child of her own. That didn't work, and she was sent to live with a middle-aged couple in Lynnwood.
These new foster parents seemed caring, Liz said. They had two other foster children and two of their own. The foster mother sent Liz a photograph of Baby M. She added it to her collection, which she kept in a Ziploc bag.
Despite their situation, Liz and Mike had a better shot than a lot of parents at winning their baby back. They were together and motivated. And Liz had no prior record with CPS.
"I think it's very possible they will have her home by Christmas," a social worker said.
At their next court date, Liz and Mike tried hard to make a good impression. They found thrift-store slacks and a leather jacket for Mike, and a red sweater for Liz.
"I'm tired of dressing like a teenager," Mike announced as he and Liz walked into Juvenile Court. Liz, her auburn hair pulled back, looked more lawyer than client.
But they had to wait for Courtroom 5. Long waits are a problem statewide for dependency courts. A recent survey found that state social workers waste an average of 12 hours a month waiting for overbooked courtrooms.
As one, two, three, then four hours slipped by, Liz and Mike grew more and more confused. They struggled to understand the paperwork their court-appointed lawyers handed them. What's a dispositional order? Why was Mike listed as his baby's "presumed father"? And where was the help finding a place to live?
"I don't want to sound dumb, but I don't understand this," Liz said when her lawyer stopped by. "I want to know, am I going to get my kid back?"
Before she got an answer, the lawyer peeled off to chat with another lawyer about another case, not uncommon in dependency court, where public defenders carry heavy caseloads.
By the end of the day, Liz and Mike had yet to see the inside of Courtroom 5, but their two public defenders had cut a hallway deal: Baby M would remain a ward of the state — indefinitely. If they were to get her back, Liz and Mike would have to finish a checklist within 15 months that included parenting classes and mental evaluations. Both would be required to take random drug tests. Mike would require drug treatment, but not Liz, the state determined.
Resigned, Liz and Mike signed the papers.
As Liz stepped outside for a cigarette, Mike spotted some leftover cake in the court clerk's office. "This is the most humiliating day of my life," he said, eating a piece.
On Thanksgiving Day 2003, Liz and Mike hit bottom.
Mike's pickup — their home — was gone, smashed in a hit-and-run.
They bought a basket of chicken strips and ate their holiday meal at a Ballard bus stop, then walked to a park to sleep. But Mike's damaged hip locked up, so they wheeled their suitcases to the Sunset Bowl to steal a few winks in the hard plastic chairs.
"I don't know how much longer I can take this," Liz said the next day.
They turned to their new social worker — their third so far — for help.
But Carole Johnson made it clear she was not the maternal type of social worker. No hand-holding. No excuses. Get your checklist done and we'll try to get your baby back, she advised.
Johnson, 59, with short silver hair and a husky voice, had been a drug and mental-health counselor earlier in her career. Liz and Mike were good at finding free lunches and donated clothes, Johnson said. But why can't they just find work and get an apartment?
"There is this scattered thing they do," she said. "They light on an idea and then Mike is on to the next idea."
Johnson was not one to back down when confronting Mike, and even called for security during a heated argument with him.
When Liz and Mike asked her to help them find a place to live, Johnson handed them a two-page list of housing providers. Start calling, she said.
The list wasn't much help. It can take months, even years to get a subsidized home in Seattle, and some providers turn down people like Liz and Mike, who have prior evictions.
Johnson understood the problem. And she offered Liz another solution. "Certainly housing would be easier if they were to separate."
If Liz checked into a shelter for single women, Johnson said, she would stand a better chance of getting a permanent place. A stable home could then help her get her daughter back, she said, echoing a suggestion made by Liz's lawyer.
The state cannot order a couple to part ways, and Johnson said she was just stating the obvious.
But Liz was upset. "They have no right to say that. Mike is my best friend."
Instead, Liz made a request of Johnson. Several housing providers that rent to families said they might offer Liz and Mike an apartment if Johnson would sign a letter supporting their daughter's return.
Johnson refused. "I can't give a letter, in good conscience ... " she said later. "What if they start using crank?"
A thin winter light faded to dusk as Liz leaned against the pickup, smoking a cigarette. Interstate 5 hummed overhead. It was now late February, Baby M was 6 months old, and the couple was back living in their truck parked near the Ravenna Boulevard overpass. They had driven it away from the repair shop without paying, claiming the work had been shoddy.
Liz ticked off their appointments for the next day: a morning visit with their daughter, drug counseling for Mike and then a trip to West Seattle for parenting classes.
Mike, drowsy from his antidepressant medications, yawned.
"Don't fall asleep again during the visit," Liz scolded him.
With their home-on-wheels back, they were finally feeling good about finishing their checklist. Their drug tests had come back clean for the past three months. The eight-week parenting class had gone well. And they'd been regularly visiting their daughter, watching with wonder as she grew curls and learned to sit up.
Mike also was making some money. His public defender had paid to get Mike's pressure washer out of a pawn shop. Soon after, he scampered up the cedar-shake roof of a mini-mansion in Woodinville and blasted off the moss. Astride the peak, he looked down at Liz sitting on the bumper of his pickup.
"Someday all this will be yours. I kid you not," Mike said, laughing. Liz rolled her eyes, but she wanted to believe his promise of a better life.
Even Johnson saw some progress: "They're doing well." It might be possible to start giving Liz and Mike more time with their baby, she said, in anticipation of returning her to them.
But she was concerned Mike's psychological evaluation was still missing. "The question with Mike is how can he maintain 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Mike was leery of the evaluation. "They want to go into all my past and find dirt."
As Baby M was nearing her first birthday, Mike was earning enough to pay for a $38-a-night motel room on Aurora Avenue North. Liz and Mike settled in, decorating with strings of tiny lights.
Watching TV one night, Liz saw a crime drama linking antidepressants to suicide. She asked Mike if his medications were making him feel worse. Mike had loathed the side effects that came with the Zoloft, so he had quit taking it.
Right outside their door, there was another drug, cheap and easily available, that Mike turned to: meth.
"It was a bad environment for a recovering addict," Liz later said of Mike.
Mike's optimism began to fade. He turned down a job at Jiffy Lube and spent his days scouring Aurora Avenue thrift stores to find something valuable enough to sell to pawn shops. A 69-cent gold necklace turned into another night at the motel.
Mike began skipping visits with Baby M; when he did attend, he often was in a foul mood and picked fights with Liz.
He was starting to scare her, but she didn't want to tell anyone, hoping he would return to his old self.
Johnson, after hearing about Mike's behavior during the visits, asked him to resume drug tests. He refused.
Whether it was mental illness or the delusions and paranoia often linked with meth use, Mike lost his grip on reality.
One day in early September, at the Ballard Denny's, Mike calmly explained that he was being chased by the paparazzi in helicopters and that he had bumped into Mike Tyson at his motel. He heard whispers, he said, but couldn't tell where they were coming from.
He munched on a French fry and said Liz, too, was suspect: Martha Stewart had undergone reconstructive surgery and was now masquerading as his girlfriend.
"I kid you not," he said. "It's Martha Stewart. I'm not crazy."
Liz was desperate to get her baby back and to get Mike away from Aurora Avenue. She arranged for her young son to come up from California, hoping his presence would help them cut through the waiting list for a subsidized apartment.
They finally got a two-bedroom duplex in Edmonds. They had survived more than a year on the streets and in seedy motels.
Liz hoped their new home would be the last thing that was needed to convince Johnson to help her get her baby back. She carried a picture showing her daughter's face smeared with cake frosting from her first birthday party. Liz had not been allowed to be there.
The deadline for Johnson to make a decision was approaching: Baby M had been in foster care for almost 15 months.
Johnson needed to check up on Liz and Mike in their new apartment. Liz's youngest son was also living there, but he would soon return to California to live with his older siblings.
A video camera that Mike had mounted outside the front door tracked Johnson as she approached. Inside, the place was packed with his other thrift-store finds, including stereos and furniture, power tools and cans of paint thinner. Poked in among the clutter was a crib, there for Baby M.
This looks crazy, Johnson thought. This is no place for a baby.
On Nov. 18, 2004, Liz and Mike had another visit with their daughter. It didn't go well and Liz scolded him for being too rough with the baby.
That night, back at the duplex, Mike erupted. He pounced on Liz and began to throttle her until she heard the bones in her neck pop. A neighbor called 911.
Liz escaped and hid outside in bushes until an Edmonds police cruiser crunched up the gravel drive. As Mike was handcuffed, Liz pleaded: He's mentally ill, take him to a hospital, he needs help. Instead, he spent nine days in jail.
Edmonds police came back five times in the following months.
Liz automatically was given a protection order, but she had it rescinded. When Mike wasn't doing drugs, she said, he was a sweet man.
"She was always concerned about him and didn't want to leave him behind," Liz's sister, Sandra Smolinski, said. "She loved him."
Johnson saw Liz's reluctance as textbook: "If you looked up domestic-violence victim ... Liz would have every characteristic. A classic case."
Domestic violence, drugs and mental illness are the most common problems confronting families in dependency court. Even if Mike were out of the picture, Liz's failure to leave him earlier would cast doubt on her priorities.
The question of what was best for Baby M had been answered, Johnson decided.
She started the process of terminating the couple's parental rights.
Once the state files for termination, about four out of five parents simply give up.
Liz decided she had to leave Mike. On March 23, 2005, she packed everything she could salvage into a second truck Mike had bartered for. She headed for her sister's place in Ballard.
Earlier that day, a pawn-shop owner had warned Liz: Be careful. Mike was just by and was threatening to kill you.
He's said that before, she replied, and headed out the door.
Mike, on his way back to the duplex, spotted her truck on Aurora Avenue North. His pockets were full of fake gold jewelry that the pawn shop had refused to buy. Liz had the real stuff, he thought.
He flipped a U-turn, gunned his engine and went after her. Liz looked up and saw him in the rearview mirror. He's going to kill me, she thought.
Mike chased Liz as she tore through parking lots in a panic. He caught up to her back on the street and rammed her truck until it flipped upside down, skidded and smashed into oncoming traffic. The six-car pileup was all over the news that night.
The impact broke Liz's shoulder, ankle and jaw. She struggled to breathe.
Then came a cheerful voice: "Squeeze my little toe and I'll sing you a song." A Barney doll Liz bought for her daughter had come alive, she would later say.
As Liz howled in pain, Mike poked his head into the cab and yelled at her, "Ah, shut up."
Five people were taken to the hospital; Liz and a 59-year-old woman from Everett underwent emergency surgeries. Mike was hauled off to King County Jail.
Four days later, he was still unhinged. When told the crash had broken Liz's jaw, he drew his mouth into a tight grin. "Good. I hope that bitch is wired shut."
He was sent to Western State Hospital. His diagnosis: schizophrenia.
Mike was about to lose all that mattered to him. In October, he gave up his parental rights to Baby M, including his chance to see or even write her. Mike got one concession: If his daughter is adopted, she or her new parents must send him a letter and picture once a year.
"It breaks my heart to give up my kid," Mike said. "I was acting out crazy with my illness, and I hurt someone I love very much."
A few weeks later, after he pleaded guilty to assaulting Liz and the Everett driver, he was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.
And he was ordered to never see or contact Liz.
At the hearing, Liz faced Mike for the last time. "I want to know why," she asked, trembling. "I'm suffering the rest of my life, Michael. I will never be the same. I never did anything whatsoever to make you want to do this to me."
As Mike was being led back to jail, he turned to Liz and mouthed, "I'm sorry."
On a crisp fall day two months ago, in the lobby of a CPS office, Liz kneeled in front of her daughter and zipped up the girl's carrot-colored jacket.
Her baby was now a 2-year-old with curly brown hair. She could run and talk and giggle. She looked like Mike, with a wide, toothy grin.
Liz wiped away her own tears. After the crash, she had endured six months of hospitals, nursing homes and physical therapy. At first, she had hoped to build a new life, away from Mike, solid enough to get her daughter back.
But her shoulder, held together by pins and a metal plate, made it impossible to lift her girl or find steady work. Penniless and again homeless, Liz decided to sign away her parental rights and move back to California to be close to her three other children. She is guaranteed three visits, three letters and three pictures a year.
It was anguishing, Liz said, but best for her daughter. And the foster parents in Lynnwood had been working to adopt her.
"She looks happier in the pictures sent by [the foster mom] than she looks with me," said Liz. "I'm just beat down."
This day in October would be Liz's last visit before the paperwork went through. Carole Johnson, who had spent two years as Liz and Mike's social worker, choked back tears as she watched Liz bundle up her daughter.
Baby M rubbed her eyes, ready for a nap. Liz leaned in.
"I love you. Don't forget me. Don't forget me," Liz said. "Never say 'goodbye,' just 'see you later.' "
Baby M nodded, waved and hugged a bottle of apple juice. "I see ya," she said, and headed home.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com
Mike Siegel: 206-464-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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