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Girl was found dead after 2 years. Did her parents get a state subsidy for keeping it secret?


MARY JO PITZL   | Arizona Republic

For more than two years, Ana Loera's whereabouts were apparently unknown to anyone outside her household. 

But after a fire that her adoptive father confessed to setting at the family home in January 2020, a shocking discovery emerged: The child had died in 2017 at age 10For more than two years, her remains had been concealed in the family's attic.

When police investigating the fire discovered the child's bones, Rafael Loera told them he and his wife Maribel did not disclose the death to officials for fear that the Department of Child Safety would remove their three other children.

There could be another reason why the Loeras remained silent: Money.

Ana, whose birth name was Charisma Marquez, had been adopted by the family along with two siblings. The family also had another adopted child. 

Ana and the other children most likely made their parents eligible for a monthly subsidy to care for their needs. In Arizona, the average subsidy last year was $691 per month per child, according to state budget reports.

DCS says confidentiality laws bar the agency from commenting on whether the Loeras received subsidies for the children they adopted, so it's unknown whether they collected a subsidy for Ana, and whether they kept collecting during the two years after they concealed the girl's body.

But it's likely they did: State and federal policies provide funding for almost any child who is adopted from foster care, particularly if the child has special needs. Because of the trauma foster children endure, almost all have needs that meet the state requirements, regardless of family income.

Last year, the state spent $278.3 million on adoption subsidies to support nearly 32,000 children, budget records show. 

There is little apparent accountability for that money.

DCS sends out an annual letter to check whether the subsidy is meeting the child’s needs, but the agency does not do in-person visits to see the child. Once a child has been adopted from foster care, the government does not intervene in the family’s affairs as parents have a constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit, barring abuse or neglect.

In a statement, DCS said there is some follow-up on the annual letters. If parents note that the child needs additional help, particularly with behavioral-health issues, the agency can step in. 

If a review letter does not get returned or comes back as undeliverable, DCS will try to locate the child through internet searches or through AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program. Children adopted from the foster system are automatically eligible for AHCCCS services.

However, DCS can't cut off payment simply because of an unresponsive review letter. That would violate federal policies, agency spokesman Darren DaRonco said in an emailed statement. Federal dollars provide much of each state's adoption support. It takes court action to stop payments.

Absent a report of abuse or neglect, which would require an investigator to see a child, DCS does not have the legal authority to intervene in a family's affairs, DaRonco wrote.

There should be a way to respect parental privacy rights while keeping oversight of the taxpayer dollars that provide the subsidy, said Darcy Olsen, an adoptive parent and the co-founder of Generation Justice, a nonprofit that, among other things, works to improve child-welfare practices.

Verification of eligibility for a government subsidy doesn’t cross any privacy lines, she said.

“We all have an interest in making sure those resources are spent where the voters and legislators want them to be," she said.

The bigger question, also raised by the Loera case, is how to know if a child has disappeared out of a family.

A paper audit, such as the review letter, wouldn't catch instances where parents lie or don't respond. Schools aren't required to track students once they leave. Tax returns aren't routinely audited to see if a family has the number of children it claims.

“It may be one of those things that lends itself best to a community solution, where we keep an eye on each other, to see if something has gone wrong," Olsen said.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

2021 Mar 19