Two weeks before Devani’s second birthday, she was taken away from her parents in Tucson by a state child-welfare caseworker.
The little curly-haired girl seemed to be well-fed and cared for, but the caseworker cited drugs in the home and alleged domestic violence in deciding that Devani would be safer, at least temporarily, in foster care.
Instead, over the next four years — as her mother fought to get her back — Devani suffered an odyssey of mistreatment in a succession of foster homes.
She was physically abused. She was placed with David Frodsham, a man subsequently convicted of child molestation, who investigators suspect repeatedly sexually assaulted her and other foster children while he ran a pedophilia ring.
And that would not be the worst that Devani would face.
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In theory — and usually in practice — Arizona’s foster-care system protects abused or neglected children. It removes them from homes where they are in “unreasonable risk of harm” through neglect or abuse. When it cannot place them with other relatives, it places them with trained foster caregivers in safe, state-monitored homes.
Foster parents pass a raft of reviews to ensure they are qualified, and most work hard to take proper care of children placed with them.
But those who don’t — foster parents who harm children the state leaves in their care — are tracked in only the broadest terms. The state handles verified allegations of neglect or abuse in foster families much as it does those in other families.
But officials admit they don’t really analyze the data for patterns of foster-care problems that could be prevented. And data shows caseworkers often don’t talk privately with children to identify what happens to them in foster care.
Those children’s families say the problem is real. Of 42 families interviewed for this story who had children removed, 11 alleged that their children were physically or sexually abused, exposed to drugs or harmed in some other way while in foster care.
The case of Devani — whose name has since been changed after adoption — may be one of the most extreme examples.
But a close look at the horrors of her story shows how warning signs can be missed, and reveals gaps in the system that result in children being beaten, raped or worse.
Michelle Calderon’s 1-year-old daughter was taken from her by the Department of Child Safety and then placed in multiple homes where she was abused. David Wallace and Bob Ortega/azcentral.com
The Department of Child Safety is the youngest department in state government. Then-Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature created it three years ago to fix a crisis largely of their own making at its predecessor, the Department of Economic Security’s Child Protective Services division.
Amid broad belt-tightening after the 2008 economic downturn, lawmakers and the governor slashed funding for child-welfare services. At the same time, they adopted stricter reporting rules and ordered CPS to investigate every allegation.
That combination swamped a shrunken core of CPS workers with impossible caseloads. And, increasingly, it left children at risk.
With better funding since 2014, the new DCS has improved dramatically in many areas.
Still, the past three years, with an average of about 18,000 children in out-of-home care, the department has strained to recruit and keep enough foster homes. The average child in foster care or a group home at the end of last fiscal year had been placed in 2.5 homes. But some had been moved far more often. One child had been moved by DCS 53 times, according to the department’s most recent report.
DCS “requires a thorough vetting process before a foster placement can become licensed,” said spokeswoman Cynthia Weiss. That includes a background check, a search for any prior DCS history, home inspections, reference checks and licensing classes. Most out-of-home placements must be approved by a Juvenile Court judge, and DCS caseworkers visit foster placements monthly.
Many parents with children taken into care by DCS asked not to be named, saying they feared retaliation if they criticized the department. But more than a quarter of 42 families interviewed for this story alleged their children were harmed in foster care.
It’s impossible to say whether that sample is representative, because DCS’ tracking of how children fare in group homes and foster care is spotty at best.
The department does maintain data on why it terminates foster-care or group-home licenses. For example, over the six months ending Sept. 30, DCS terminated 34 licenses, including seven for “child maltreatment,” four for neglect, and 13 over failed fingerprint-clearance cards.
Overall data would indicate reported problems are exceedingly rare among the approximately 5,000 foster families in the state. Federal officials analyzing DCS data concluded that 99.89 percent of children in out-of-home care in 2014 had “no substantiated maltreatment.”
But caseworkers didn’t interview the children 42 percent of the time on their visits to foster homes. DCS doesn’t question children leaving foster care about maltreatment. And DCS doesn’t systematically track or analyze the reasons why it moves children out of foster homes.
DCS declined to comment on whether there were any red flags at the time David Frodsham and his wife gained their foster-care license in 2002. He didn’t have a prior criminal record in Arizona. In 2013, the state would put Devani in his care.
Michelle Calderon, 40, admits her own troubled background and parenting problems.
A high-school dropout, she gave birth at 24 to a cocaine-exposed girl whom child-welfare workers took away directly from the hospital, according to court records. Calderon lost parental rights to that child in 2002.
She met Devani’s father, Jonathan Hileman, in early 2010, just after he had served 10 years for burglary, theft and sexual assault. Devani was born in April 2011.
(The Arizona Republic generally does not identify child sex-assault victims. This article does not use Devani’s birth surname, which differed from those of her parents.)
An argument between the parents on April 2, 2013, brought in the police and DCS. Though domestic-violence charges against Calderon were dismissed two weeks later, on April 17, 2013, drug tests showed both parents positive for cocaine. Caseworker Jeannette Sheldon took Devani away. The little girl seemed healthy, Sheldon later reported to the court. But Sheldon cited concerns over drugs, the domestic-violence allegations and the couple’s “lack of stable housing and employment.”
At first, Calderon struggled with state services. But after court warnings in October that she risked permanently losing her daughter, Calderon faithfully went to every class and session, and tested clean at every drug test, according to DCS reports she showed to The Republic.
By May 2014, Calderon gained home visits with Devani. But a judge ordered Hileman to have no contact with the child. When the caseworker found him hiding in the apartment, the state ended Devani’s home visits and turned toward severing Calderon’s parental rights.
There would be another reason cited for cutting her off: her complaints about Devani’s foster care.
During Devani’s first foster placement, in April 2013, Michelle Calderon repeatedly complained to case manager Jeannette Sheldon and to others at DCS that her daughter kept showing up for visits with scratches and bruises.
“I took pictures of her bruises. They said they’d look into it, but I couldn’t get any answers. So, I called the cops,” said Calderon, interviewed in Tucson before a judge put her under a gag order relating to this case.
Though the police didn’t bring charges, their visit led the family to opt out of fostering Devani, according to a DCS report. In early June, the department moved the girl to the Frodshams, who already were fostering other children.
Soon Calderon began complaining again to Sheldon and others at DCS about apparent signs of abuse.
“Not even a month after she was placed there, she came to a visit with a UTI (urinary tract infection) and vaginal odor. That went on for eight months. Their excuse was it was caused by drinking juice,” said Calderon. “She started arriving to visits with scratches and bruises on her back. This continued over the entire stay. She came one time with a bite mark on her arm and a bruise on her face.”
But DCS reports to the Juvenile Court, shared by Calderon with The Republic, show that Sheldon was skeptical about any problems with the Frodshams.
In a May 2, 2014 report, Sheldon wrote that after overnight visits, Devani was “having a harder time to leave her mother,” and that after one visit “she walked into the front door of the foster home, wet all over the floor, and cried and cried.” Sheldon added that “once she has transitioned back into the foster home, she is peaceful and appears happy again.”
Both Sheldon and a contract therapist, Alexis Kirkendall, dismissed Calderon’s complaints as baseless. Later, they used her insistent concerns against her. In July 2015, even though Juvenile Court Judge K.C. Stanford found that Calderon was “in substantial compliance with her case plan,” he stopped her visitations with Devani, after Kirkendall said that contact with Calderon was “psychologically damaging” to the girl.
Sheldon and Kirkendall cited what they called Calderon’s “false complaints” in later hearings, telling Stanford that she had tried to disrupt Devani’s placements in various foster homes. Kirkendall, raising worrisome behavior by Devani, such as crying, wetting herself, and showing fear of male drivers, told the judge that Calderon was making Devani afraid of men.
Stanford cited those arguments, among others, in terminating Calderon’s parental rights on Oct. 8, 2015.
There was, though, another possible explanation for Devani’s behaviors.
On April 21, 2016, Sierra Vista police arrested David Frodsham on child sexual-abuse charges, after an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Police also arrested a soldier at nearby Fort Huachuca, Spc. Randall Bischak, citing evidence that Frodsham had allowed Bischak to molest the foster children.
Another man, Anthony Savage, also has been charged in the case, and federal and local investigations continue.
The two charges to which Frodsham pleaded guilty last year, and the three to which Bischak pleaded guilty in May 2017, didn’t involve Devani; but a police report alleged that a child her age at the home, too, was sexually assaulted.
That revelation cast Calderon’s supposedly false complaints in a different light.
“God forgive me,” posted Beth Young Breen, in response to an online story the day of Frodsham’s arrest. For nearly a year, Breen, a driver for a company under DCS contract, had taken Devani back and forth from the Frodshams to visit Calderon. “Mom had concerns,” she wrote, but “I kept reassuring mom the child was in a good home.”
In contrast to Sheldon’s and Kirkendall’s statements, Breen described Devani as “excited to see her mom … she’d sing all the way to Tucson. When the visit was over and she had to leave, she’d have major tantrums.”
Reached by phone in May, Breen said she, too, was under a gag order on the case.
Calderon didn’t learn about the charges against Frodsham until long afterward. After the sexual-abuse charges became public, no one at DCS nor at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which represents the agency, brought the new facts to the attention of the Juvenile Court. Nor did DCS ask the court to reconsider the termination of Calderon’s parental rights.
Asked recently why, DCS spokeswoman Cynthia Weiss said, “it wasn’t DCS’s responsibility” to correct the record. The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment or answer questions relating to the case.
To be sure, when Judge Stanford finally terminated Calderon’s parental rights to Devani in October 2015, he cited other reasons, too. One key factor: Devani had been out of Calderon’s care for more than 15 months.
Arizona law allows a parent’s rights to be terminated after 15 months if he or she hasn’t remedied the circumstances that led to the out-of-home placement and there is a “substantial likelihood” that the parent “will not be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care and control in the near future.”
But Stanford cited Sheldon’s and Kirkendall’s testimony that Calderon disrupted placements and made Devani afraid of men as evidence she couldn’t exercise proper parental care.
Several lawyers who specialize in family law or legal ethics told The Republic that any attorney who discovers their client misled a court, whether intentionally or not, must inform the judge.
“An attorney who learns after that fact that he or she participated unknowingly in presenting false information has an obligation to correct the record,” said Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor and the author of seven books on family law. “Lawyers act as officers of the court. They have a duty to justice.”
David Lansner, a New York attorney with 36 years of family law and civil-rights experience, said that “if there’s an opportunity to correct it, you need to do that.”
Citing privacy laws, DCS declined to discuss Devani’s foster placements. As for Calderon’s complaints that her daughter showed signs of sexual abuse, DCS declined to say why workers didn’t refer those warnings to a forensic specialist or investigate them further.
Instead, in the months after Frodsham’s arrest, DCS moved forward with plans to have Devani adopted by another family.
In that case, too, there had been warnings.
To outward appearances, the family in southern Arizona with three children of their own seemed happy. But on the evening of last Dec. 29, for reasons that aren’t clear, Devani’s adoptive mother put — and kept — the girl in a bath so scalding that it gave the 5-year-old third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body and clotted the blood in her veins, according to police reports.
Investigators noted scratch marks on the woman’s forearms, and other signs that she might have held Devani down, possibly using a towel to avoid burning her own hands. That night, after Devani was rushed into intensive care, doctors told police they believed the adoptive mother waited hours before calling 911.
Told at the hospital that Devani was in critical condition, the woman immediately asked if the girl could talk, police said. One of the other children, 3 years old, told police “maybe mommy was mad at” Devani, and said he heard the little girl crying “big cries in the bath.”
For months, Devani struggled to recuperate under round-the-clock care at Banner University Medical Center in Tucson. Among many other surgeries, doctors had to amputate some of her toes. For more than a month, they expected her to die, according to police reports.
Nationwide last year, 48 percent of children with such extensive burns died, according to data from the National Burn Repository.
Banner declined to provide information about Devani’s treatment or condition. But Michael Peck, a burn specialist at the Arizona Burn Center, part of the Maricopa Integrated Health System in Phoenix, said, “That’s a terribly deep scald burn, and not typically one you see accidentally.”
“Children won’t stay in hot water,” and to cause such extensive, deep burns, even in boiling water, would require prolonged exposure, Peck said.
Because so much of Devani’s skin was destroyed, skin grafts in such a case would require five or six operations over months, Peck said, followed by a long, difficult recuperation.
“Generally, figure a day in the hospital for every one percent of the skin burned,” Peck said.
Is the skin grafting painful? “Oh my God, yes,” said Peck. “The donor sites hurt just as much as being burned all over again.”
Other than to say that “the department’s prayers are with this child in the hopes of full recovery,” DCS spokeswoman Cynthia Weiss declined comment, citing confidentiality laws. The Republic is not identifying the family to protect Devani’s identity because of the possibility of sexual abuse in her prior foster family.
The adoptive mother was arrested in January on suspicion of two counts of child abuse. She was released on bail from Pima County Jail after being beaten by four other prisoners who had watched a TV news story on the burning of her adoptive daughter.
Police said the woman’s husband was not home when Devani was burned.
The family gained their foster-care license through one of DCS’ contract agencies, Christian Family Care, which says, on its site, “We wrap children and families with the love of Jesus Christ.”
A brother of the adoptive father, who lives in Colorado, told police that he spoke with Christian Family Care during the couple’s background check. He warned the licensing agency that the mother had mental-health issues and had abused her husband physically and emotionally, “but they were licensed anyway,” he said, according to a police report.
Christian Family Care’s president, Mark Upton, declined to answer any questions about licensing the family. In a written statement, the agency said that St. Nicholas of Myra, a now-closed adoption agency, also was involved.
DCS, citing privacy issues, declined to discuss either the licensing of the family or whether it subsequently investigated how Christian Family Care handled the case.
The adoptive family was first licensed in 2014, and had fostered several children before.
DCS’ Weiss said that, from 2000 to 2015, DCS wasn’t allowed to include unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse or neglect when considering a foster-care placement. The state Legislature changed that law last year, “again allowing us to look at the totality of history for a potential foster license, not only criminal but also documented citizen concerns that have been reported to DCS,” she said.
Without examining how often and in what ways children are harmed in care, how can DCS figure out how better to prevent it?
That such abuse happens is clear. Other parents whose children were removed have shared well-documented instances with The Republic of harms in foster or group homes.
A Santan Valley couple had four children taken away by DCS in July 2012 over alleged domestic violence. Three of them were returned three months later; but one son, then 12, who was developmentally disabled and autistic, was placed in a group home for seven months longer. There, he allegedly was sexually assaulted several times by the home’s owner, according to DCS and Goodyear Police Department records.
When the couple got their son back in May 2013, they didn’t know what had happened, said the father, whose name is withheld here to protect the son’s identity. But “he wasn’t the same boy. He came back very changed, very traumatized,” said his father. “He started cutting himself, talking about killing himself.”
Since then, their son has been in and out of DCS custody, and has been sent to several residential mental-health centers. In September 2014, at the Devereux Foundation, a juvenile residential treatment facility in Scottsdale, the son told his parents he was sexually assaulted again, this time by an older boy also being treated there. The father said that when workers at Devereux declined to call the police, he did so himself. But his son wouldn’t talk to the officers.
In the three prior years, Devereux had reported 31 peer-on-peer sexual incidents to Arizona’s Department of Health Services, which licensed the facility. Those included at least 20 reported as sexual abuse or molestation. As The Republic has reported, ADHS took no action against Devereux in any of those cases.
Some parents can document their allegations that their children were physically assaulted, or exposed to drugs and alcohol in DCS custody, sometimes by other youths in foster care. Others can only describe the changes they saw when their children were returned.
Ana Diaz had six children taken away for alleged neglect in 2014, after her older children’s elementary school reported to DCS that the children twice had lice.
In the year before she got them back, “my 3-year-old was hit a lot,” said Diaz. “Every time I saw him, he was hurt, he was bruised.” A photo she said she took on his return, in early 2015, shows a little boy with two black eyes and bruises on his face.
Reporter Bob Ortega outlines The Republic’s series examining the Arizona Department of Child Safety, the issues with the state’s child-welfare system and how to improve it. David Wallace/azcentral.com
Devin and Angie Pellerin filed a federal lawsuit, still ongoing, against Arizona in 2014 over the removal of their two children, then age 8 and 4, in May 2013. The Pellerins, who say both children were physically and psychologically harmed in care, recently moved to another state out of fear DCS might come into their lives again.
And DCS has not said whether any children in its custody were harmed at Children’s Village, one of 10 Tucson group homes operated by non-profit contractor TMM Family Services.
On Feb. 8, a federal grand jury indicted a Children’s Village employee, Taylor Ray Freeman, on three charges of possessing and distributing child pornography. Freeman, who had worked at the home since late 2013, was arrested Jan. 10 after authorities say he emailed a sexually explicit photo of a young girl to an undercover officer on Dec. 27. Freeman’s trial is scheduled to begin next month in federal court in Tucson.
Federal agents found other photos and videos at his home and on his smartphone, according to the indictment. It isn’t clear whether any were of children at Children’s Village, or whether DCS informed the children’s parents or Juvenile Court judges.
TMM declined comment. In a written statement, DCS said “all appropriate measures have been and are being taken to ensure the safety of the children in this home.”
Safeguarding children in foster care is challenging. A 2015 class-action civil-rights lawsuit against DCS, filed by Children’s Rights and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, seeks to force Arizona to improve how it cares for children in the foster-care system, and to force it to investigate cases of neglect or abuse in state care more quickly and aggressively.
Some foster parents say it isn’t fair to blame caseworkers, or, indeed, DCS.
“They’re not at fault here. Because of not paying them well and overwork, you have turnover like crazy,” said Bridget Granville-Seeley, who last year adopted a 9-year-old boy out of foster care and has fostered other children. “With the caseloads, how can they possibly know what’s going on for these children and fight for their interests?”
Boosting pay and reducing turnover among caseworkers, and recruiting more foster families, have been high priorities for DCS Director Greg McKay. For example, new hires are now eligible for raises after 22 weeks, instead of a year; and for the first four months of this year, turnover fell 2 percentage points compared with a year ago, to a cumulative 8.5 percent. But progress has been slow.
“Foster care can be dangerous,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform. Nationally, where data are available, “we see abuse in a quarter to a third of foster homes, and it’s worse in group-care institutions.”
Wexler said it’s imperative for any child-welfare agency to ensure that it isn’t placing any child it takes away in even greater danger.
Both in Arizona and nationally, there is a huge disconnect. In 2014, of 46 states that reported data to the federal Children’s Bureau, all claimed that fewer than 2 percent of children in foster care had been harmed in the prior year. Arizona said that barely a tenth of 1 percent of children in care were verifiably harmed.
But in surveys going back for decades, from 25 percent to as high as 40 percent of former foster children report having been abused or neglected in care. In a 2005 study in the U.S. Northwest, 33 percent of former foster children reported being mistreated in care.
In mid-May, Devani was moved to a rehabilitation facility. Pima County detectives have spoken with her, but they haven’t revealed what she told them.
But she faces a long, difficult recovery.
As a patient struggles to recover from such severe burns, the metabolic rate rises so high that “your body starts to eat itself,” said Michael Peck, of the Arizona Burn Center. “You burn off the glycogen and fat, then the protein, and your skeletal muscle breaks down. … We have not figured out a way to keep it from happening.”
After skin grafts are complete, a patient likely will be so weak that “sitting up at the edge of the bed is a huge accomplishment,” Peck said. Because of all the scar tissue, it can take years to recover range of motion in the affected joints.
A motion on Devani’s behalf, filed in probate court on Jan. 31, named Robert Fleming, of the law firm Fleming and Curti, as a conservator to represent her interests. Fleming appointed attorney Lynne Cadigan to represent Devani in the event any legal claim is filed against the Department of Child Safety.
The adoptive mother accused of burning her remains free on bond. An initial hearing in her pending trial in state court on child-abuse charges is scheduled for June.
David Frodsham is now incarcerated at the state prison in Kingman. In August, he began serving the first of two consecutive prison terms totaling nearly 17 years. He’s due for release on Jan. 16, 2033.
Alexis Kirkendall, whose testimony helped sever Calderon’s parental rights, continues working as a therapist at the Easter Seals Blake Foundation, a DCS contractor. Jeanette Sheldon, the DCS caseworker also instrumental in severing Calderon’s rights, has been promoted to supervise other caseworkers. Neither Kirkendall nor Sheldon returned calls seeking comment.
Michelle Calderon filed suit in state court in late January seeking the right to see Devani while the girl was in the hospital.
“The last time I saw her was July 17, 2015,” Calderon said that month. “I think she needs to hear my voice. It’ll bring her hope.”
Her motion was opposed by the adoptive family and DCS. She has not been allowed to see the daughter over whom she no longer has parental rights.
She continues to pursue her case in court, but the public is unlikely to learn much about the outcome. At a hearing March 1, Pima County Juvenile Court Commissioner Jennifer Langford imposed a gag order on the case.
“I was ordered by the judge not to speak to the media,” Calderon said, walking away from the courthouse in Tucson that morning. “I can’t say more.”
Devani, meanwhile, has been assigned by DCS to another foster family.