There never was a shortage of tragedy during Lillian Downing's time as head of Child Protective Services here.
Ariana and Tyler Payne. Brandon Williams. Jahyr Holguin. Fabian Silva. Michael Ibarra. Za'Naya Flores. Patrick Smith. Vanessa Martinez.
They are all gone. They are all Pima County kids who died despite CPS involvement. The names changed, but the stories pretty much stayed the same over the years. Dysfunctional and broken families. Bungled cases. Public scrutiny. CPS stonewalling.
Maybe now that Downing is no longer head of the agency in Pima County, the story might finally change. It's the latest move in an ongoing shake-up with CPS following a tragic spring here. Downing's last day as program manager in Pima County is Friday. It's unclear if she stays on the state payroll for a bit after that - CPS is even more secretive now than in years past - but it's clear she's out.
"Lillian Downing will be transitioning out of the Program Manager position in the Pima Region to pursue other opportunities," Tasya Peterson, a spokeswoman with the state's Department of Economic Security, wrote in an email late Friday.
Flora Sotomayor, who has been with DES for more than 30 years, will be acting program manager.
What happens to Downing? When I emailed her Friday, saying I had heard she was leaving, she wasn't exactly forthcoming.
"Mr. Brodesky, that is not correct," she wrote. "I currently plan to remain with the agency. That is all I wish to comment on."
Funny, a few hours earlier she had sent an email - subject line "Transition" - to CPS staff with a slightly different message.
"I will be transitioning out of the Program Manager position as of 6/22/12," she wrote. "My plan is to pursue other opportunities within DES as well as outside the department."
Here's how Peterson, the DES spokeswoman, put it: "At this point, it really is Lillian's decision on what opportunities she will pursue."
This isn't the first time Downing has struggled with her story.
During legislative hearings in 2007 about the botched Payne case, she would barely admit any errors. CPS workers ignored a court order to keep Ariana and Tyler Payne with their mother because of alleged, but unproven, drug use. Instead, they placed the kids with their father, who starved and murdered them before hiding their bodies.
"I cannot say it was an error that we closed the case because, regarding the allegations and our involvement with the mother, there was nothing further for us to do," Downing said at the time.
Her performance at those legislative hearings would have been comic, if it weren't so tragic.
Personnel issues during Downing's tenure dogged the agency, creating harsh divisions and hard feelings. A CPS supervisor dated an abusive father who once was her client - and CPS managers knew it. A CPS investigator shocked his co-workers by using vulgar slang to question whether a little girl had been sexually abused - and was promoted a few weeks later to head up child abuse investigations.
Last year the agency, desperate to keep up with cases, stopped requiring workers to see kids when they initially responded to a report. All they had to do was try to see kids.
It's sad, really, but the mishandling of cases is downright horrifying. This year started with 21-month-old Za'Naya Flores starving to death. For months before her death, the CPS worker looking after little Za'Naya was copying and pasting his case notes. It's unclear how often he actually saw the child.
In February, 18-month-old Patrick Smith died from a dose of methadone, and his mother now faces murder and abuse charges. Patrick was born with drugs in his system, prompting CPS to take the case and work with his mother. She failed three drug tests in July and another in August, but still CPS closed the case in August.
And in April, 11-week-old Vanessa Martinez was found buried in remote desert northwest of Toltec Road and Interstate 10. Her body was battered and broken. Again, CPS inexplicably closed the case, this time in less than three months, even though Vanessa was born meth-exposed. Her parents tested positive for meth and cocaine, and kept changing their stories. The parents are now charged with murder.
There have been too many failures. Too many lives lost. Too many heartbreaking cases.
New leadership at CPS won't change everything - and may not change anything - but let's hope it's the start to a better story.
Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or firstname.lastname@example.org