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Child custody probe rejected
By Kyle Henley
The Colorado Springs Gazette, 1 November 2001
Rep. Mark Cloer's crusade for a criminal investigation of
El Paso County child-custody caseworkers came to a halt Wednesday. District
Attorney Jeanne Smith declined to investigate or convene a grand jury to
investigate allegations against caseworkers -- largely because it already had
been done. "Most of these cases were at least two years old and many of them
older than that," Smith said. "All but one case presented to us has been in
front of a magistrate or judge, in some cases already up to the Colorado Supreme
Court." About two weeks ago, Cloer, a first-term Colorado Springs Republican,
gave Smith 42 complaints against DHS as evidence of the need for an
investigation. Gov. Bill Owens had turned down Cloer's request for a state
investigation. The complaints alleged abuses by social workers, including lying
in court and tampering with witnesses. "There were no facts presented in those
documents that would support an investigation by my office or a grand jury,"
Smith said. In many of the cases, caseworkers were cleared after reviews by the
county commissioners, investigations for human rights violations and even probes
by a citizen review committee. In nine instances, the cases alleged abuses in
other counties where Smith doesn't have jurisdiction. "It finally establishes we
have not violated the law," said David Berns, director of El Paso County's
Department of Human Services. Berns has said all along the complaints were
baseless and likely the work of people with long-standing grudges against the
department. "I'm afraid there are always some cases where we will never be able
to make people fully satisfied," he said. DHS' child custody division is
responsible for investigating charges of child abuse and neglect. It receives
about 9,000 calls a year and investigates roughly half of them. Each year, the
department terminates parental rights and removes children from homes in about
200 cases. Cloer, who has been seeking an investigation of some kind against the
department for nearly two months, says he will convene a task force to study the
issue and may write legislation to change the way child custody cases are
handled statewide. "I've been told that changing the Department of Human
Services is next to impossible and advised to accept the things I cannot
change," Cloer said. "But that is not my nature. When it comes to protecting our
children, I believe we must change the things we cannot accept." When the
General Assembly convenes in January, Cloer said he would pursue legislation
that would give parents facing termination of their rights the option of a jury
trial and would create stiffer penalties for caseworkers who violate the law.
Courts, county wrestle with child protection
By Bill Hethcock/The Gazette December 26, 2001
Jacob and Joshua's dad made a big mistake when he left his sons with the woman who wasn't supposed to be their mom anymore.
In May, child welfare workers picked up the boys, ages 5 and 3, outside a motel room where their mom had overdosed on heroin.
Six months later, their dad was in Judge Theresa Cisneros' courtroom fightingto get his kids back. He is accused of failing as a father, and his sons might be taken from him forever.
The child protection system - the social workers on the streets, the bureaucrats in the county offices and the lawyers and judges in the courtrooms - always have wrestled to balance child safety with the rights of parents to raise their kids. Determining what's best for the Jacobs and Joshuas of El Paso County is what they do.
Most of the time, their work causes little fanfare. Most of the thousands of cases they investigate are settled quietly between caseworkers and families. In fact, fewer than one in 10 child abuse or neglect investigations end up in court.
Even so, the system - particularly the Department of Human Services - has had its share of critics.
A contingent of parents, unsatisfied with how their cases were handled, persuaded state Rep. Mark Cloer, R-Colorado Springs, to seek a criminal investigation into the department and some of its caseworkers. The parents' cases were very different, but the overall tone was that caseworkers are too often insensitive, antagonistic and power-hungry.
In November, after looking into the allegations, District Attorney Jeanne Smith ruled that DHS had committed no crimes. But some wonder whether the complaints reveal systematic problems or whether the allegations damaged the agency.
The agency also recently had to explain why it hired a caseworker with false credentials who has been accused of molesting children. The former employee now faces criminal charges.
And last year, the department drew criticism after 7-year-old Aaren Dunn was stabbed to death by her father in Manitou Springs. The department investigated calls about the family before Aaren's death, but state officials cleared DHS, saying no one could have predicted the killing.
The publicity those cases generate can deflate public trust and discourage people from turning to DHS when they should, said Jane Beveridge, director of the state Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare Services.
"How do they build back their trust relationships?" she said.
Courts handling fewer cases
DHS says the system works; some parents say it doesn't.
Statistics can't settle the debate definitively but they do provide perspective and show how the Colorado Springs area compares with others:
The courts in El Paso and Teller counties became involved in 448 child abuse or neglect cases in 2000, making the 4th Judicial District the second busiest in the state for those types of cases, behind Denver.
The courts are handling fewer cases as the emphasis at DHS has shifted to settling family problems without legal intervention when possible. Three years ago, the courts were involved in more than 600 cases.
Only 2.7 percent of kids identified as abused are abused again after DHS intervention, less than a third of the nationwide average.
Last year, El Paso County received more reports of child abuse than any other Colorado county. That could mean two different things: There are more cases of abuse here, or community values make people more likely to report it.
Of the 8,483 reports that came in, 685 were determined to be true incidents of abuse or neglect. That number puts El Paso County behind Adams, Boulder and Mesa counties in the number of confirmed abuse cases per 1,000 population.
Lloyd Malone, director of child-protective services for the county, said he thinks one of the reasons El Paso County's per capita numbers are lower is because parents are getting welfare assistance earlier. In other words, people with housing, a steady paycheck and food on the table are less likely to abuse their kids.
The county has merged child protective services and welfare programs and increased efforts to keep kids in their homes by enrolling families in parenting classes, substance-abuse programs and the like.
Since 1997, the number of foster kids has dropped to less than 400 from about 600, said Malone's boss, DHS Director David Berns.
Through Dec. 11, 129 children from 83 families were taken from their parents permanently.
"The number of kids permanently removed from their homes wasn't tracked before this year, but we're all in agreement the number is going down," Berns said.
Cloer, the state representative, said the county should have been tracking that number all along.
Cases 'gut-wrenching,' judge says
Hearings to end parental rights are the final step in a process that starts with a complaint of child abuse or neglect and ends months or years later with a judge.
Parents suspected of abusing or neglecting their children are given repeated chances to correct problems ranging from alcoholism to unemployment to poor parenting skills.
If, after about a year, a caseworker determines a child remains at risk and a judge doesn't see enough improvement by the parents, the judge legally can end the parent-child relationship and make the child available for adoption.
Termination decisions rank among the toughest choices judges make, said Richard Toth, who, until September, was chief judge of El Paso County's juvenile courts. It was a position he held for 12 years.
"They're gut-wrenching," Toth said. "It's the hardest thing I have to do. I'd rather do a murder case than a (parental rights) termination."
Judge Cisneros, who will decide in February whether to terminate the rights of Jacob and Joshua's dad, said she realizes the long-term consequences of her decisions.
"Termination of parental rights is literally death to a family," she said. "It's the worst thing you can do to the kids and the worst thing you can do to the parents."
But sometimes, Cisneros said, splitting a family is the only chance to help - or even save - a child.
But AnjanettePettigrew, an attorney who represents parents, said El Paso County's child-protection system is too intrusive.
Instead of working cooperatively with families going through tough times, caseworkers nitpick and exaggerate parents' shortcomings in court, and judges routinely rubberstamp the caseworkers' recommendations to split families, she said.
"Caseworkers need sensitivity training," Pettigrew said. "They need to be taught to work cooperatively with the families instead of adversarily."
Family law attorney Maria Sinel said she also thinks the system is biased against parents.
Pettigrew and Sinel are among the attorneys who have been openly critical of DHS and the court system. They represented some of the parents who turned to Cloer for help.
Even though the district attorney cleared DHS of criminal wrongdoing, Cloer remains convinced there are systematic problems and formed a citizens committee to brainstorm ways to make the child-protective system better.
'You can't satisfy everyone'
Of course, not everyone agrees there are problems.
Vincent Rahaman, an attorney who represents children and parents in El Paso and Teller county courts, sees a system in which people are doing their best to accomplish a difficult task.
"The nature of the beast is a balancing act," he said. "You can't satisfy everyone.
"You hear about the cases where children are not removed from the home and they end up severely beaten or dead. But when children are taken away from the home, all of a sudden the DHS is the big bad wolf, and I'm not convinced of that."
Judge David Gilbert, who also presides over child abuse and neglect cases, said the complaints come from a minority of parents who lash out after losing their children.
"It's like asking criminals what they think of the criminal justice system," he said. "They think it stinks, they think there are problems with it, and some of them think they have been wronged by the system."
Cloer is drafting a bill that would grant parents the right to a jury trial before their parental rights could be ended.
"A jury trial offers parents the opportunity to have their case heard by their peers, people who don't necessarily have the ideal of perfection," he said. "Judges can get jaded. Jurors would provide a fresh perspective."
The father of Jacob and Joshua said he would prefer that jurors decide his case.
"I felt like I was up against the judge and the DHS," he said of a recent courtroom experience.
His situation also shows the complexity of child-protection cases.