Mother’s Murder Conviction Raises Foster Care/Parent Care Issues

Hurricane, West Virginia’s Tracy Wright has been found guilty in the murder of her three-year-old daughter.  Her case highlights the very issues of foster care vs. parental care I’ve been blogging about recently.  Here’s one article about the case (Charleston Daily Mail, 10/19/11).

Tracy Wright is now 28.  Her husband had a chronic illness and died in 2009, so she was left with two children to raise.  One of them, Emma, was healthy, but the younger girl, Ashley, had cystic fibrosis, an inherited lung condition that renders its victims incapable of clearing mucous from their lungs.  In bygone days, cystic fibrosis was usually fatal early in life.  But over the past 20 years or so, medications and therapy have prolonged the lives of CF sufferers well into adulthood.

By all accounts, Tracy Wright was a lousy mother, at least toward Ashley.  Emma seems to have gotten appropriate care from her, but she thought of little Ashley as a burden.  Ashley’s CF plus her husband’s fatal illness were too much for Wright to handle, so she started ignoring doctor visits for Ashley and failed to give the girl her medication most of the time.

Eventually Ashley’s pediatrician became alarmed and contacted the local child welfare agency.  Caseworkers looked into the matter, but took no action against Wright.  That’s partly because they relied on her to tell them what she was doing to care for her daughter’s chronic and life-threatening condition.  Not surprisingly, Wright told them she was doing everything by the book.  At one point CPS considered closing its file on Wright.

Ultimately, Ashley’s condition worsened, she contracted pneumonia and died.

The State of West Virginia brought murder charges against Tracy Wright for refusing to provide her daughter the type of medical care she knew she needed.  It took a jury just an hour and a half to find Wright guilty, but also to recommend mercy to the judge.  That means she’ll be eligible for parole in 15 years.

The trial of the case closely mirrors the debate about the actions and inactions of child welfare agencies.  The case is clearly one that, had it occurred in Arizona, Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic would be shouting to the skies that Ashley’s death should have been prevented by Child Protective Services.

And who would argue?  Clearly, CPS caseworkers knew the situation.  They knew about Ashley’s CF; they knew from the pediatrician that Wright hadn’t kept appointments and hadn’t filled enough prescriptions for the girl to have given her the medication she needed.  They knew that CF is a life-threatening condition.  So why didn’t they take the girl into care?

That’s a good question and one that Wright’s attorney, David Moye, put to the jury time and again.  But it’s a criminal case and the jury wasn’t asked to decide whether CPS was to blame; they were asked to decide whether Tracy Wright was.  It didn’t take them long to make up their minds.

But in this case, there’s no doubt about it; Laurie Roberts has a point.  CPS failed to protect a child it knew or should have known needed protecting.  That child died because of it.

So Tracy Wright and CPS share the burden of blame in Ashley’s death.  End of story.

But is it?  After all, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform argues persuasively that federal and state governments need to redirect resources away from foster care and toward helping families with whatever problems they’re having in dealing with a child. 

And this case looks like a good example of what he’s talking about.  What if CPS had had more money and personnel because it wasn’t spending so much on foster care?  A CPS caseworker could have taken the situation in hand.  That might have meant sitting down with Wright and Ashley’s pediatrician and working out what it took to get Wright to comply with Ashley’s medical needs.  Then that person could have kept his/her finger on the pulse of the situation.  Did Wright fill prescriptions?  Keep doctor’s appointments?  How many pills had been used since the caseworker’s last visit?

If Wright showed that she understood the situation and had changed her ways over time, then Ashley would be alive today.  She’d be living with her mother and sister and still would have her relationships with her extended family.  Of course if that type of intervention failed to correct Wright’s treatment of her daughter, then foster care would still have been an alternative.

But that type of intervention by a caseworker from CPS wasn’t an alternative.  For CPS it was, as usual, take the child into care or leave the child with the mother.  CPS decided on the latter with disastrous results.  It did so in part because so much of its resources are put into foster care.  There’s simply no time or money for it to work constructively with parents.

Of course, there’s no guarantee of success in any case.  CPS could have done its utmost for Tracy Wright and she still might have returned to her old ways that resulted in Ashley’s death.  But what we know is that, with some exceptions, parental care is better for children than is foster care.  We also know it’s cheaper for taxpayers.  That last is true even with the type of intervention Richard Wexler describes and that might have saved a little girl’s life.

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