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Originally published Sunday, December 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Mike Fancher

A story's lengthy trail, and its catastrophic turn

By now I hope you have read today's powerful story, "What's best for Baby M? " If so, you might wonder how such intimate words and pictures...

Seattle Times editor-at-large

By now I hope you have read today's powerful story, "What's best for Baby M?" If so, you might wonder how such intimate words and pictures could be brought to the pages of a newspaper.

For starters, this story could not have been told if the Washington state Legislature hadn't voted to open dependency-court hearings to the public. Only parents, lawyers and Child Protective Services (CPS) workers could attend these sessions before July 28, 2003. On that day, Seattle Times reporter Jonathan Martin wrote a story explaining the change. He quoted Patricia Clark, chief juvenile judge of King County Superior Court, as saying, "The push to have the hearings open has been based on the perception that something secretive, perhaps nefarious, perhaps incompetent has been going on behind closed doors.

"By making the hearings open, people will learn judicial officers and everyone in the system, for the most part, is very careful in handling the cases," the judge added.

Martin had been covering the child-welfare system since 1998. His reporting included child-fatality stories, so he knew the enormous stakes in these hearings. As his story today says, "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."

The new openness provided a window into the system, and Martin wanted to explain the process from the parents' point of view. His aim was to track a couple to learn "what they had to do to navigate a complicated and quite confusing system. It's much more confusing than the criminal process. I could understand why parents come away totally befuddled, because I was."

In August 2003, Martin was in Courtroom 5 of King County Juvenile Court the day Liz Campo and Mike Testa first appeared, trying to be reunited with their daughter. Theirs was one of more than 4,000 dependency cases a year, and the children in more than half of those cases end up with their parents.

Martin thought Liz and Mike seemed to have a good shot at rebuilding their lives and being reunited with their daughter. They genuinely and passionately wanted to be able to raise their child, and they were willing to sign a confidentiality waiver so that Martin could report their story.

Back then, of course, there was no way to know what the future would hold. Martin said that much of what transpired for them is typical of dependency cases, "but the drama was stunning."

For more than two years Martin and Seattle Times photographer Mike Siegel tracked the couple's life. "They are homeless, so it was a challenge," Martin said.

In addition to attending hearings and meetings with caseworkers, Martin reviewed hundreds of court, police and CPS records. Despite the access to dependency-court hearings and the confidentiality waiver, there were serious hurdles to getting information.

Siegel shot more than 2,000 images, and the selection in today's presentation is amazing. His first photos of the couple captured their living conditions in Testa's truck. During the day their belongings were in the back and they were in the front; at night that was reversed so the couple could sleep in the back. "It was like they were a house on wheels," the photographer said.

"We got to know these people pretty well. They were a little uncomfortable at first. After six months or so, they totally ignored my camera. They trusted me.

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"They liked the idea that we were doing this story. I think they thought it would help them get their kid back. We were all hoping that the last picture would be them getting their kid back."

That didn't happen. "There was never a choice for the system," Martin said. Testa's descent into depression, drugs, violence and ultimately jail was catastrophic. For both Siegel and Martin, that was the most surprising aspect of the saga.

"I was surprised how delusional he got," Siegel said. "This person I came to know is going to jail for 12 years. I don't know anybody in jail."

Martin said, "I didn't see the domestic violence in this case coming at all." Testa ended up "hurting the one person in his life he had on his side, the only and perhaps last person on his side."

Martin added that the experience is a reminder "how insidious domestic violence can be." Working on the story was also a reminder of the challenges faced by people in the social-service system. "Boy, I don't envy their job. I don't envy them at all," he said.

Deputy Metro Editor Mark Higgins, who edited the story, said he was impressed by how hard Martin and Siegel worked "at unraveling this emotional, heart-wrenching story. It took more than two years and I never once questioned their resolve to follow the story to its end. They faced so many logistical, bureaucratic and legal roadblocks, and they always found a way to work through them diplomatically but with determination and professionalism.

"This story was such a unique opportunity to pull open the doors of state dependency court — for the first time — and let readers look in at the system that has such power over people's lives. At stake is the health and welfare of this state's children. What could be a more important story?

"I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. It's an intimate, unvarnished profile, beautifully illustrated, of two people who tried so hard to overcome so much, and fell short."

And in the end, this remarkable story leaves no doubt what was best for Baby M.

Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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