PHOENIX — Racial disparities have been documented for years at the Arizona Department of Child Services (DCS).
The most recent data shows that roughly one out of every 34 Black children in our state ends up in foster care at some point.
"We estimate 63% of Black children, between birth and 18, will be investigated [by DCS] in Maricopa [County]. For white children, we estimate 33%...So, nearly double the risk," said Dr. Frank Edwards, a professor at Rutgers University who co-authored a national review of CPS data around disparities.
African American kids are four-and-a-half times more likely to end up in foster care than Hispanic children, and four times more likely than white children, according to the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Arizona (CASA).
Queen Ranger nearly became part of those statistics. In the end, her case was closed by a judge, but only after Queen's parents went to intense lengths to keep their child from being taken.
"The baby girl and light of the house"
Kevin and Khadija Ranger have five girls. The youngest is Queen.
"She's really funny. She loves nature, running, and art," said Kevin.
In July 2020 though, Queen stopped running.
"She was playing at the park with her sisters, and we noticed she was limping," said Kevin. "The next day she was still limping and my wife said, 'We need to go ahead and take her to St. Joseph's, where she was born, to get some x-rays.'"
Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital were concerned by Queen's leg and other symptoms. They referred the family to Phoenix Children's Hospital (PCH).
Kevin said on the way from one hospital to the other, the family stopped for food.
"At Subway we get a phone call from PCH, 'Hey where you guys at?'" said Kevin, recounting the conversation.
"'Well, you were supposed to come straight over here.'"
'We said, "Okay, we're on our way."
Minutes later, Kevin said he got another phone call.
"It's DCS. 'Hey, we just got a complaint that you guys are neglecting your daughter's medical care.'"
We're like, 'What?"
'No evidence to support' neglect
In their initial report, a DCS employee wrote that PCH staff called because the parents left 'against medical advice.'
The doctor wanted to do an MRI that afternoon, but Kevin allegedly told them Queen had 'been through today, we'll bring her back on Monday.'"
DCS began investigating the Rangers for neglect after the call from PCH.
Just twelve days later, the caseworker found the allegations 'unsubstantiated.'
They wrote, "there is no evidence to support that [the parents] neglected Queen Ranger. The parents...are planning on going back to Phoenix Children's Hospital to follow up."
"I really felt offended because I have always taken care of my children," said Khadija. "I'm like, 'this is really preposterous.'"
The DCS investigation though, was not the Ranger's biggest concern.
"We go back to PCH and they do an MRI," said Kevin. "And they said, 'Mr. Ranger, we see something on her brain, but we don't know what it is.'"
Further tests would reveal a rapidly growing tumor, pressing on the then five-year-old's brain.
"That's when our whole world stopped," said Kevin.
The course of treatment
In the year that followed there was more back-and-forth between the Rangers and the medical team at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
Doctors recommended IV chemotherapy. The parents declined.
They told ABC15 they did not want Queen to be subjected to the harsh side effects.
PCH "was able to get approval to administer an oral chemo medication," according to DCS paperwork.
Doctors though, said that in order "to continue prescribing the medication they need to monitor Queen's tumor...to ensure the course of treatment is necessary."
Kevin and Khadija declined to have an 'MRI with contrast' performed because they worried it contained traces of shellfish and would hurt Queen's dental work.
Doctors told them, and DCS, "this would not occur" but the family was "still not willing to have an MRI."
Mr. Ranger tells a different story than the one in DCS paperwork.
He said they objected to the MRI "with contrast" because Queen had an "allergic reaction" when that exact scan was done months prior.
"She was nauseous. She broke out in red hives all over her body. So, we reported that," said Kevin. "Months later they wanted to do the same MRI again. So, we're like, 'Well we're declining that.' Then we get another complaint. DCS is involved again. Now we're under investigation again."
The Rangers wanted to get a second opinion. They sought out longtime South Phoenix pediatrician Dr. Duane Wooten.
"Should've been easily fixed"
"They came to me for a simple reason that should've been easily fixed by my colleagues," said Dr. Wooten.
Dr. Wooten made one phone call to his fellow doctors at PCH and got the MRI impasse resolved. He said he suggested an MRI without contrast to put the family more at ease.
"[Doctors] told them, 'If you don’t get the treatment, we are going to take your child,'" said Dr. Wooten. "How are you going to respond to that? And these parents were loving parents, they just didn’t agree with all the kinds of therapy that was pushed onto them."
In a report, the DCS caseworker noted Dr. Wooten's assessment that the family was "treated poorly" and it "caused the family to have doubt and fear in this tumor treatment process."
Even after Dr. Wooten got involved things still escalated.
DCS wrote that a "social worker at PCH repeatedly expressed fear that the lack of follow up from the parents [is] causing suffering and harm to Queen."
"We have custody of your daughter now"
Less than two weeks after DCS spoke with Dr. Wooten a DCS 'specialist' was at the Ranger's front door, alongside Phoenix PD. They had a temporary 'Notice of Removal' for Queen.
The Rangers were cordial the entire time but clearly upset because they were under the impression the case was being closed, not escalated.
The DCS employee said Queen was a "ward of the court" and asked the parents to take them to the birthday party where Queen was that evening.
"They said, 'Can you take us where she is? We are going to go and pick her up.' I said, 'That's not gonna happen.'"
According to the report, Kevin even took off his wedding rings and said, "if it was God's will then he was willing to be arrested."
"Why were you willing to go to jail" asked ABC15's Zach Crenshaw.
"Because we were right," replied Kevin. "We’ve never failed as parents. We’ve never neglected our children."
Kevin never went to jail.
Queen was never taken from her parents, even though DCS asked Phoenix PD to register Queen as a 'missing juvenile' in a national law enforcement system.
The parents successfully pushed back at the court hearing, days after notice of removal was served.
Three months after that the judge closed the case for good.
"I think there was a lot of miscommunication early on in this case," said Hon. Kristin Culbertson, a juvenile judge with the Maricopa County Superior Court. "I think it was appropriate to become involved at that time, but I don't think it's necessary for these parents to co-parent with the government any longer."
"Giving them no benefit of the doubt"
"It seems like lately, there is an overzealousness of dealing with African-American families," said Dr. Wooten.
"What I mean by that is giving them no benefit of the doubt...They're getting pushed from behind instead of a helping hand on the shoulder."
"To be honest, this does frustrate me," said Matthew Stewart. "Why aren’t we all angry that Black children are being removed from their homes at a much higher rate?"
Stewart spent 10 years working for the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
In 2020 he left organization and is now an advocate for many Black families dealing with his former employer.
"Many families don't feel like systems show up to help," said Stewart.
The distrust is reinforced when Black families learn their children are at least four times as likely to end up in foster care compared to white and Hispanic kids, according to CASA.
"In a state where we are data-driven, this data does not seem to drive action," said Stewart, who proceeded to point out that any action is usually spurred by community leaders.
In a recent National Academy of Sciences study, looking at CPS data from the 20 most populous U.S counties from 2014-2018, researchers found Maricopa County led the country in foster care placement and termination of parental rights.
The higher-education authors said it was "comparatively extreme," the rate at which Maricopa County Black children were removed from their parents during that time period.
"We're keenly aware"
In a lengthy sit-down interview, DCS Director Mike Faust made it clear that addressing racial disparities is one of his top priorities.
"Personally, I spend 15 to 20% of my time, specifically, on this," said Director Faust. "We're keenly aware of that [data], and that's why we are engaged in this conversation."
Director Faust said his agency regularly meets with Black community leaders to review certain cases.
He also is quick to point out that Black children are reported to the agency at a rate 3.5 times higher than other kids.
"Although African American children are reported [to DCS] at a higher rate, the entry into [foster] care, relative to that reporting, is proportionate to that of white children," said Faust.
"It's absolutely correct that the child welfare system does not control the front door, but they do control the foster care and investigation substantiation decisions," said Dr. Edwards.
Director Faust said his agency is reviewing processes and procedures to see if they contribute to the disparities.
"We’re looking at standardizing statewide mandated reporter training...We are working on cultural humility and cultural empathy training for our workforce," said Faust. "We don’t want to separate families."
The director said he could not speak about the Ranger case, due to privacy laws, but acknowledged distrust plays a role in outcomes.
"We come to the door thinking we are coming to help, but if the family on the other side of the door says we're not there to help, we have to figure that one out," said Faust. "Family engagement is critical to the work that we do. We continue to get better at it, but we still got a long way to go."
A heartbreaking goodbye
This January, five days after her seventh birthday, the Rangers took Queen to Banner Desert Medical Center for laser surgery to remove the growing tumor.
"Banner said they could go in, debunk the tumor, and remove the cyst," said Kevin. "And we would have good success with it."
A few days after the operation, Queen was still not waking up. The surgeon delivered the news.
"The doctor said, 'I'm sorry Mr. Ranger, we don't know what happened. We went in and took the tumor out. Obviously, something happened as far as her losing oxygen to her brain,'" recalled Kevin.
The parents were at Queen's bedside around-the-clock, praying for a miracle for five days.
Finally, after days without a response, doctors told the family it was time.
"They said, 'Well, Mr. Ranger, you know, just looking at the monitor, she's not really breathing on her own. The machine is doing most of the work.'"
"9:04 AM. They unplug it," said Kevin.
"I pick my daughter up...And I watch her transition," said Kevin, the tears rolling down his face, as he recalled feeling his daughter's heart stop.
"Going through all this trauma with DCS. And then on top of this, we lose our daughter anyway."
In the final months, Queen, her four sisters, and their parents were all worried about being separated.
Dr. Wooten said it is a tragedy they were not able to savor those final moments as a family.
"It probably should've been [handled] more like, '[Queen] is probably going to die, what is going to be her quality of life?' And let's see what we can do to bridge that gap."
"Are you optimistic that there will be change?" asked Crenshaw.
"No, I am not. I'm just not," replied Dr. Wooten.
ABC15 reached out to Phoenix Children's Hospital for comment.
A spokesperson sent the following statement:
“At Phoenix Children’s, our first priority is to provide the best health care possible for all patients we serve – regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or cultural preferences. While we cannot speak publicly on specific patients due to patient privacy laws, we can share that Phoenix Children’s has a duty to report situations where we believe patient safety may be compromised, particularly in order to save a child’s life. When our physicians and staff members encounter such situations, we are legally obligated to notify the proper authorities.”
If you have a story involving DCS or another state agency, you can email Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org.