CHILD ABUSE: System isn't flawless

BARBARA COTTER Updated: December 9, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: December 9, 2011

Robert Stout is an electrician, not an expert on child welfare. But he knew something wasn’t right when he saw a young boy lying in a fetal position on the bedroom floor during a 2008 service call to a Colorado Springs townhouse.

The boy’s eyes were open, but he was motionless. He didn’t bother to swat a fly that had landed on his face. The room reeked of urine. It seemed to Stout that the boy and his five sisters all shared that fetid room.

“I’ve seen some horrible houses in terms of filth and smells and all that. But to see the kid there helpless, and no one helping him, lying on the floor in that bedroom ...” Stout said recently, his thought trailing off.

He called police about an hour after leaving the house, and an officer went out that day.

It would be another 17 months before the 14-year-old boy — so emaciated that Stout thought he was 7 — was removed from the home. Another few months would go by before his fivesisters, also showing signs of neglect, were taken from the home and put in foster care.

And Stout’s call wasn’t the first about the parents, who were both sentenced in October to 25 years in prison for the “continuous and daily abuse” of the boy. Social workers had been called when the family lived in Georgia. A Colorado Springs school social worker reported the family to the El Paso County Department of Human Services in 2005.

“Somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” Stout said.

Those who investigated and prosecuted the case say it wasn’t just a somebody; it was a systemic fail encompassing problems that have been known to hang over child abuse and neglect cases nationwide.

Investigators and prosecutors point to an imperfect child protection system, red flags that are easy to misinterpret or overlook, community and family members who are unwilling to report or unsure about reporting suspicions of abuse and neglect — and perpetrators who are savvy enough to elude detection.

“When it comes to cases of neglect, it can come down the train for everybody involved: law enforcement, social services, medical personnel and the court,” said Rebecca Arndt, a detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, who investigated the case. “And all four of those did fail these kids at some point in this process.”

Unfortunately, child advocates say, one or more of the issues surrounding this case keep too many child abuse and neglect cases from coming to light until months or even years after there were indications that something wasn’t right.

Consider the shocking story out of Penn State, where associates of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky reportedly knew about allegations that he was sexually abusing young boys, yet did little to stop it and, depending on who you believe, never called police.

Closer to home, an El Paso County grand jury recently indicted two administrators with the now-defunct Hilltop Baptist School and the senior pastor of Hilltop Baptist Church for failing to report that a 15-year-old was being sexually abused by a 32-year-old woman even though they allegedly knew it was taking place.

And in September, an Erie woman and her boyfriend were arrested after authorities discovered her son had been locked in his room for extended periods, barely fed and kept in squalid living conditions. Police were called to the residence 22 times since January 2008 on problems unrelated to the boy’s situation; they never noticed the child neglect.

“We didn’t have anyone indicate to us there was a problem,” Erie Police Chief John Hall told The Denver Post. “Now that we’ve got this case, you look back and say, ‘Gee, why didn’t we know?’”
Becky Miller Updike, who recently became Colorado’s first child protection ombudsman, said it’s not unusual that police — or any other authorities — would miss key clues.

“Balls get dropped by a series of things,” she said. “Fingers usually point to county DHS’s when someone is hurt or injured, but it’s not always their fault.”

In the case of the Colorado Springs family — given the pseudonym “Smith” in this story to protect the identity of the children — there are “fingers to be pointed at every direction,” said prosecutor Donna Billek, a deputy district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, who was involved in the Smith case.

RESPONSE BY DHS MUST MEET LEGAL THRESHOLD

Sometime around 2004, teachers noticed something wasn’t right with the 14-year-old Smith boy. He would babble and appear to nod off in class, and school officials eventually urged his parents to take him to a neurologist after he collapsed. When his condition deteriorated in 2005, a school social worker reported the family to the El Paso County Department of Human Services.

Precisely what DHS did or didn’t do is not for public record; director Richard Bengtsson said the agency is legally prohibited from discussing any involvement with the Smith family. But others involved in the case say DHS had some interaction with the family, because the agency offered services to help the parents deal with whatever problems they faced in caring for their children.

“DHS did a lot of stuff for this family from the period of 2003 to 2005,” Arndt said.

But it doesn’t appear DHS took steps to remove the kids from their home at the time, perhaps because caseworkers didn’t find anything that reached the legal threshold to warrant such a response. And DHS tries as much as possible to keep families together when the children aren’t in imminent danger.

At first, according to an affidavit on the case, Mrs. Smith seemed amenable to receiving help from DHS, but her husband wasn’t. She eventually became uncooperative as well.

“(The Smiths) were informed for the need of proper medical care and given multiple opportunities for assistance by DHS and others,” the affidavit said. “They continually failed to follow through with medical appointments or offers for assistance.”

In 2005, when the school social worker said he was calling DHS, the parents pulled their kids from school and announced they were moving to Denver. A DHS caseworker tried doggedly but unsuccessfully to track the Smiths down, Arndt said, but it was as if they’d dropped off the face of the earth.

 It would be four more years before the Smith children — weakened and physically damaged by ongoing neglect — would be rescued.

HOME-SCHOOLING CAN PROVIDE HAVEN FOR ABUSERS

The Smiths never moved to Denver, and they managed to keep the boy and his sisters off the radar by declaring their intention to home-school the children, a right that comes with very few restrictions under Colorado law. Critics of lax home-schooling regulations say they give abusive and neglectful parents an easy avenue to hide their children from the eyes of teachers, other parents and students.

(Click here for a list of mandatory reporters)

“I understand people have a right to raise their kids and teach them as they want to, and that’s all fine and dandy, but you’re going to have people out there who are going to take advantage of that, and in situation like that, they disappeared for four years,” said detective Kory Dabb, Arndt’s colleague who also worked on the case. “What’s happening when these kids are out of school and nobody’s keeping track of them?”

It’s not the first case to raise questions about home-schooling laws.

In Washington, D.C., a woman was charged with the murder of her four home-schooled daughters, a case at the center of a 2008 story in the New York Times that looked into the lack of oversight in many states’ home-schooling laws.

Trudy Strewler Hodges, executive director of the children’s advocacy group CASA of the Pikes Peak Region, has pondered the home-schooling conundrum, and isn’t sure how to address it.

“It’s not only crossed my mind but I’ve had discussions with professionals in other meetings: Is there some way to check on the children to make sure they’re OK?” she said. “But parents have the right to home school their children, and there aren’t the resources to check on every child to make sure the parents aren’t starving their kids. I don’t think any of us know how to intervene to check on all parents who home school.”

Efforts to check on home-schooled children could come up against the Fourth Amendment, however. And in any case, there’s no need for tighter restrictions, said Jeremiah Lorrig, director of media relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Virginia.

“Our response typically is that this isn’t an issue of home-schooling; it’s an issue of child abuse, and there already are laws and protections for children in cases of child abuse,” said Lorrig, who was home-schooled in Colorado Springs. “Home schooling does not have any higher propensity for child abuse among parents.”

Still, Arndt said, schools are critical in reporting child abuse and neglect, and home-schooling is one way devious parents get around the system.

“We get a ton of reports from the professionals at schools, so the ideal way to keep your child from disclosing is to limit their social environment,” Arndt said. “That was one of the comments made by the evaluating doctor in this case: There was intent on the part of the parents to make sure these kids never disclosed anything by keeping them so confined.”

COMMUNITY MEMBERS DON'T WANT TO GET INVOLVED

Although the Smiths managed to keep their kids out of sight of people who are mandated by law to report suspected child abuse and neglect, such as doctors and teachers, there were others who knew about the children, including extended family and some people in the community, Arndt and Dabb said.

 “They have some responsibility here, as does the community who interacted with (the mother) and periodically saw the boy, and knew there were issues, and never once did they call DHS. Never once did they call police,” Arndt said.

Child advocates say it’s an all-too-common tale in cases of child abuse and neglect, one that’s getting its share of publicity from the Penn State case. People don’t want to get involved, or they fear retribution if they do.

“People — they don’t like to report on their neighbors, they don’t like to report on family, and I understand there are a lot of relationships that go into it,” Dabb said, “but in order for us to protect our kids who have nobody else to protect them, somebody has to call.”

It may even be that people aren’t sure whether they should call, especially in cases of neglect, which far outnumber incidents of outright abuse but are harder to recognize.

“People underestimate the destructiveness of child neglect because there isn’t a broken bone, there isn’t an injury they can tangibly see,” Arndt said. “We have got to get people to understand that the neglect of children is a slow homicide.”

Even an anonymous call is better than none at all, Arndt said, but callers who leave contact information might be able to provide follow-up information to further assist caseworkers and law enforcement in their investigation.

But as the Smith story and the case in Erie indicate, even a call might not be enough to make a difference if the right elements aren’t in place.

The police officer who responded to Stout’s call in June 2008 was looking only for what had been reported: a child with a possible medical condition “who didn’t look right,” lying on the floor in a bedroom that reeked of urine. The officer looked around, talked to the family and confirmed the child had medical issues.

“The house was decently clean, food was in the kitchen,” the officer reported.

What the parents said to the officer and what else he saw is not indicated in the police report, but DHS was not called. Child advocates say it may be that the officer simply lacked the training to see the red flags.

“Law enforcement officials aren’t trained, necessarily, about the safety and concern of children,” said Miller Updike. tje ombudsman.

“They have a different focus.”

Arndt and Dabb said that, unlike detectives, who can focus time and energy on a case, patrol officers are running from call to call, dealing with a variety of crimes, and trying to assess the situation on the scene with the information he or she has on hand. In other words, they are not amassing experience in child abuse and neglect calls.

“Generally, in an instance like this, where you would get a report of abuse or neglect, the officer goes out and basically all he can do is talk to whoever is there, and kind of look at the scene,” Dabb said.

“Sometimes, when you have a parent sitting there telling you information, it seems understandable, logical and appropriate. You don’t have anything to really act on it legally.”

MISCOMMUNICATION BETWEEN AGENCIES

Although Stout made the initial call, he never followed up because he didn’t see the need.

“I just kind of figured they would do their job,” he said. “I figured if I didn’t hear anything, they did whatever they had to do to keep the kids safe. I didn’t think nothing happened.”

(Click here to read about new laws intended to help close the loop.)

 Almost a year-and-a-half after Stout called police, a woman from the church the Smiths attended went to deliver food to the family. Whatever she saw in that visit bothered her enough to ask her pastor what she should do, Billek said. He told her to call DHS, and the ball finally started rolling to get the kids out of the house.

But even that didn’t go smoothly. According to the detectives, a DHS caseworker who investigated the 2009 call and worked to get the boy out of the house failed to call Colorado Springs police, as a supervisor had instructed. It would be about another week before police got involved.

“CSPD was not notified immediately after DHS went in and found those children, so from an investigative standpoint, we lose what that house looked like, what those children looked like,” Billek said.

“It would have been nice to have.”

It’s not clear why the caseworker didn’t call police, but no one believes there was any malicious intent.

“Ultimately, there was some miscommunication, but you’re going to have that in any case, really,” Arndt said. “You’re going to have that in law enforcement, in the hospital; this one person didn’t fail this whole family. The system failed.”

It’s possible that the caseworker, like patrol officers, is juggling so many balls that one is destined to drop. Social service agencies nationwide are often understaffed, and they deal with high turnover.

In El Paso County, the turnover rate in the Child Protection division was about 35 percent last year.

In addition, medical personnel apparently failed to adequately gauge just how bad of a condition the girls were in, Arndt  said.

“The focus was on (the boy) because he was so clearly disfigured and something was so clearly wrong,” Arndt said. “When the kids were taken to the hospital, the information was that the children checked out OK. Well, the children weren’t OK ... and that’s where, with us working this unit, we’re a little more sensitive to nuances.”

Arndt noticed that some of the five girls had missing teeth and an odd gait — signs of neglect she’s come to recognize from her seven years investigating child abuse and neglect cases. Finally, with CSPD and DHS working together, the girls were taken from their parents, about three months after the boy was removed from his home.

CHILDREN REMOVED, NOW THRIVING

Ultimately, the blame in any abuse or neglect case lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents, guardians or other adults who interact with them. In the Smith case, it appears the parents were able to slip through the system, both in Georgia and Colorado Springs, by saying what people wanted to hear, taking advantage of home schooling to keep their kids out of sight and doing just enough to sidestep intervention by police and the courts.

Police said it appears the Smiths were able to create what one called “an illusion” of providing adequate care for their children. When police were executing the search warrant in 2009, the Smiths’ home appeared clean and tidy. But on further inspection, detectives noticed there were no pans or other equipment to prepare food. The bathroom didn’t have toilet paper, shampoo or similar items.

And though there was food in the house, the affidavit said the parents bought it after coming to the attention of DHS. It may have been why the police officer who responded to the electrician’s call in 2008 didn’t spot any telltale signs of neglect.

“Our understanding, after the fact, is that once the CSPD became involved, the parents cleaned the home to improve its appearance and bought clothes for the children so they would present a clean image if and when officers came to the home,” said Colorado Springs Police Department spokeswoman Barbara Miller.

Ardnt, Dabb and Billek say the Smith children are on the road to a happier life, now that they’re in foster care. Their health has improved, they’re in loving homes, and they’re together.

“It’s miraculous how much they prospered once they were out of that home,” Dabb said.

What’s not as clear is whether gaps in the local system were closed in response to the Smith case. Colorado Springs police didn’t make any policy changes, Miller said. DHS officials declined to say whether they instituted new procedures specifically because of the Smith case, because they are legally prohibited from discussing any involvement with the family. Generally, though, every case is a learning experience, said Karen Logan, child welfare manager for DHS.

“We try and learn on a daily basis to adjust and meet the needs of the community for the safety of the kids,” Logan said.

Some issues may be beyond the scope of any one agency. How, for example, does a community improve people’s ability to recognize neglect and get them to report it? What can police departments and social service agencies to do to improve communication when their missions are often at cross-purposes? Even the HIPAA patient privacy laws can stymie an investigation, Ardnt said.

“I don’t know how you balance privacy and the protection of children,” she said. “HIPAA is an issue as it relates to some of it. You can’t get information unless you have the parents sign a release, and what perpetrating parent is going to sign a medical release?”

Some organizations are trying to take a more preventive approach to child abuse and neglect. Memorial Health System, for example, has claimed some success from a 2-year-old program to teach new parents, while they’re still in the hospital, about the harm caused by shaking, striking or tossing a young child.

But child protection systems tend to be reactionary, and changes are made primarily when gaps are revealed.

“You always have ‘cudda, shudda, wudda,” Billek said. “No system is perfect. There will always be something to do better.”

WHOM TO CALL:

• To report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, call the El Paso County Department of Human Services hotline at 444-5700 cq CQ or e-mail childabusereport@elpasoco.com. In Teller County, call 686-5550 (after 4:30 p.m. weekdays or on weekends and holidays, call the sheriff’s office at 687-9652

• To contact the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman, call 1-303-864-5111 or e-mail becky@protectcoloradochildren.org. For more information on the office, go to protectcoloradochildren.org.

Contact Barbara Cotter: 636-0194
Twitter @barbaracotter
Facebook Gazette Barbara Cotter

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