Deadly Practice

Why was a man with a violent history allowed to work with children and families?

The 911 call came at 9 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 13. A friend might be in danger, said the caller, because an explosive ex-beau had suddenly raged into her home.

When the cops arrived, it was too late.

Claudia Pascual, 31, didn't stand a chance. And ultimately, it mattered little that she had obtained a protection order against James Benjamin Leonard. That hardly stopped him from hunting her down and pulling the trigger.

Pascual died at the scene. Leonard, who also turned the gun on himself, lingered briefly at the hospital before exiting this life forever.

Still, the circumstances of the tragedy linger, as do the questions. Such as: How could a man like Leonard spend a decade working with families and children, first as an employee of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and then with a foster-care agency licensed by the DES?

In both jobs, he apparently had direct contact with children and families—despite the fact that Leonard had an arrest record thick with red flags.

In 1995, he was cited for threatening and intimidating someone over the phone. The case was eventually dismissed.

In 2007, Leonard was charged with domestic violence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. After he went through a diversion program, the charges were dismissed.

He was charged with domestic violence and criminal damage in 2010. The domestic-violence charge was dismissed.

He was charged with domestic violence again in 2011, and that charge was similarly dropped.

Yet through much of this time, not only was Leonard employed as a social worker; he also carried a fingerprint clearance card issued by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Both facts certainly fly in the face of logic. Consider what Arizona law has to say: "A license for a Child Placing Agency will not be issued, or will be revoked, if any staff member having contact with foster children has ever been convicted of a sex offense, has been involved in child abuse, child neglect, selling narcotics, or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, or has a substantial criminal record."

True, James Leonard was never convicted. But his fingerprint clearance card was suspended in May 2007, following his first domestic-violence charge. It was reinstated in November of that year under what's called a "good cause exemption." State officials won't say what the good cause was. Leonard's clearance was revoked for the last time in November 2010.

The Arizona Corporation Commission lists Michael Brewington as the CEO of A Place to Call Home, the foster-care agency where Leonard reportedly worked in 2010.

Neither Brewington nor his staffers returned repeated phone calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment. Fearing reprisals, Brewington's former employees also declined to speak publicly. However, they described rigorous criminal self-disclosure forms they were required to sign to keep their jobs. And they claim that colleagues were fired for the slightest blemish on their records.

At the same time, they say that Leonard received special treatment and was able to keep his job through 2010.

Then there are the nine years—2001 to 2010—that Leonard spent working for the DES.

But according to David Matthews, program administrator for the DES Office of Licensing, Certification and Regulation, not all criminal charges are equal.

Perhaps you got popped 20 years ago for smoking pot in college. In that case, your situation could be reviewed by the Arizona Board of Fingerprinting, which would then consider five extenuating circumstances for "good cause" exemptions, Matthews says. "On those offenses that are eligible for that, the board looks at your criminal history, how long ago it was, your efforts to rehabilitate such as paying your fines and doing what the court asks you to do—those types of things."

At the same time, an individual can't be denied fingerprint clearance simply because he or she was charged with a crime, he says. "I don't want to play word games, but when you're charged with something, it's (just) a charge. For example, you might be charged with criminal domestic violence. But by the time you do a diversion program, you do this and that, the court comes out and calls it a misdemeanor. So if you're looking at what you're charged with, it's significantly different" than the final conviction.

Maybe so. But the DPS and the Arizona Board of Fingerprinting did see fit to pull Leonard's card not once, but twice. And in 2007, he was reassigned from his "habilitation specialist" post to a less-sensitive DES job after the domestic-violence charge.

"He continued to conduct training with staff and providers, but was removed from direct client contact," says DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson.

But should he still have been working at DES at all? "With all the applicants, if they go through the fingerprint clearance process, it's really not our determination," Peterson says. "It's the Fingerprint Board's (task) to determine a good-cause clearance. And that is an indicator that he would be reinstated. So it's not really our call."

That may not be exactly true. According to Peterson, the DES has instituted its own background reviews, and presumably can take actions based on what it finds. "In 2009," she says, "we started checking the Arizona Superior Court website for new hires and promotions. If a card was expired or denied, we also look on that database to see why."

Of course, it all came a bit late for the volatile James Leonard, who continued working with children and families despite a frightening pattern of abuse.

His former co-workers at A Place to Call Home remember a man with a dismissive attitude toward women, a person who sparked complaints from the families he worked with.

But at least one person will make no more complaints. That would be Claudia Pascual, a young woman whom neither the system nor the cops could ultimately protect.

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