Updated: April 27, 2012 at 12:00 am
When Karen Magistrelli decided to run for El Paso County commissioner, the 66-year-old didn’t think her character, judgment and past would become the biggest issues of her campaign.
Magistrelli isn’t dodging questions and said she is proud of helping less fortunate people. But her detractors, including her Republican opponent, Sallie Clark, have taken exception to her methods and choices.
“We’ve been under attack several times. That’s why I’m running,” Magistrelli said. “I did not fight back 17 years ago because my children were still young. This time I’m fighting back. I don’t have anything to hide.”
From 1990-95, Karen Magistrelli and her husband, Bob, operated High Winds Youth, Inc., a foster-care facility. They were investigated by the Colorado Department of Human Services, El Paso County Department of Social Services and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office for, among other things, disciplinary methods that violated state DHS regulations.
Now, the Magistrellis use their home three miles east of Woodland Park to operate a Christian-based nonprofit called High Winds that allows convicted sex offenders to live there after they are released from prison. The Magistrellis started High Winds in 2001 to help convicted felons transition to independent living, and began housing sex offenders in 2007.
Among the rules for living at High Winds, according to an informational pamphlet, are to follow biblical standards of conduct, study Scripture, break contact with negative peers, assume household responsibilities, fulfill parole-mandated responsibilities, and refrain from using alcohol, drugs, pornography and distasteful music.
“We don’t have any type of contract with any state prison system,” Magistrelli said. “The word’s out. Guys hear about us that have no place to go. We have a stack of guys who contacted us, but none that will be released soon.”
Magistrelli’s detractors insist the first-time candidate isn’t qualified to be a commissioner. And if elected commissioner, they say, Magistrelli’s past would make it awkward, if not inappropriate, for her to oversee El Paso County’s DHS budget. They point to the DHS investigation of their group home, and the Magistrellis’ subsequent surrendering of their operating license.
Detractors also question her judgment in bringing twice-convicted sex offender Dave Dorty, who has lived with the Magistrellis for about four years, to second her nomination at the Republican county assembly at Liberty High School in March.
Magistrelli garnered 55 percent of the 300-plus delegate votes at the assembly, surprisingly earning top line status in the June 26 Republican primary over Clark, who is seeking a third four-year term as District 3 commissioner.
Magistrelli’s success provided a shot of adrenaline to her campaign but also put Clark supporters on the offensive, including Ivywild activist Don Schley. Schley obtained Sheriff’s Office reports about Magistrelli and distributed them to the media.
“I don’t want to see Magistrelli elected because county commissioners have a lot of influence in our community,” said Schley, a District 3 resident and long-time Clark supporter. “I don’t trust her as an overseer to DHS.”
Clark has repeatedly expressed reluctance to talk about Magistrelli’s past.
“It’s not my role to address my opponent’s history,” she said. “I think the allegations are very serious. If it’s true, my heart breaks for those children.”
Interest in the Magistrellis’ operations stretches back two decades, according to a review of more than 360 pages of documents obtained from the Sheriff’s Office and Colorado DHS. The Gazette obtained 110 pages from Colorado DHS with a Colorado Open Records Act request, and Schley provided more than 250 pages from a similar request to the Sheriff’s Office. The Gazette requested information related to Magistrelli from El Paso County DHS that was denied under a legal exemption. Magistrelli had a license with the state to operate the group home, but not with the county.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office investigated the Magistrellis in 1992 after a High Winds Youth boy claimed sexual and physical abuse. A Sheriff’s report dated Oct. 1, 1992, reads: “Due to the fact that this case is unfounded, no further investigation will be completed.”
An evaluation of High Winds Youth conducted by the state dated Nov. 30, 1993, reads: “Other concerns included the facility attempting to contact children who were removed from the facility after specifically being told not to, negative comments to children about Social Service professionals, and in general unclear boundaries between staff and clients.”
The evaluation continued: “In conclusion, the staff at High Winds appear to be caring people who due to a lack of experience are prone to violate traditional boundaries between children in out-of-home placement, the Department of Social Services and providers.”
More serious transgressions led to the Magistrellis surrendering their state-issued license. According to a Sheriff’s report dated Sept. 26, 1995, a woman went to High Winds Youth for a job interview as home manager on Sept. 19, 1995. The woman called El Paso County Social Services on Sept. 20, 1995, to report several issues, including a child being placed in a root cellar — sometimes called a cistern in documents and by the Magistrellis — and another locked in a “timeout” room.
The woman’s phone call led to an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office. Seven law enforcement officials, in what Magistrelli called a “raid,” served a search warrant “pertaining to the reported neglect and abuse of foster children” at High Winds Youth on Sept. 27, 1995, according to Sheriff’s Office reports. They seized computers and records, interviewed the foster children and staff.
In an El Paso County Sheriff’s report dated Sept. 27, 1995, Bob Magistrelli “stated that they use the root cellar primarily because they can’t touch the kids to discipline them.”
Corporal punishment is prohibited by state DHS regulations. But a Sheriff’s report dated Oct. 5, 1995, indicated that investigators were concerned that the Magistrellis were using corporal punishment. In a an Oct. 10, 1995, letter a Colorado DHS child care licensing supervisor wrote, “It is my understanding that there is a court order that has been issued from El Paso County preventing the use of the cistern for discipline of children.”
The cistern, or root cellar, had a wooden floor, concrete walls and a metal rung ladder, according to documents and Magistrelli’s description. It was sealed with concrete in 1997.
“Putting the kids into a root cellar, that’s not abuse,” Magistrelli said recently. “The kids loved it as a place to go. They played in there and called it a submarine.”
In addition to the Sheriff’s Office, El Paso County Department of Social Services conducted an investigation, according to a “Notice of Charges” mailed to the Magistrellis on Oct. 11, 1995, to request “that the Administrative Law Judge enter an Order revoking the day care license of High Winds Youth, Inc.”
The “Notice of Charges” said El Paso County DSS received a report that the High Winds Youth home was dirty and smelled of urine, that a child was placed in a root cellar and that a child had been in a locked timeout area with no light on, had wet himself and was not changed all day.
“During the investigations,” the Notice of Charges states, “it was determined that the children in care at HWY are placed in a root cellar (“the pit”) for discipline during the day, at night and in all types of weather. The pit is 5 1/2 feet deep and 2 feet across at the opening. The floor of the pit is approximately 5 feet wide and is covered with a wooden pallet. There are rotten potatoes at the bottom of the pit.”
The document also said: “... a child residing at HWY was placed in the pit for at least 40 minutes on September 19, 1995, with no shoes, socks or shirt. A pallet of wood was placed over the top of the pit with a telephone type pole on top of the pallet to secure it.”
According to the document, disciplinary actions used by the Magistrellis “are violations of the rules and regulations of the department.”
In an “Answer to Notice of Charges,” signed by the Magistrellis’ attorney and dated Nov. 6, 1995, the Magistrellis denied the charges.
But the Magistrellis surrendered their license, according to a “Motion to Dismiss” dated Dec. 22, 1995.
A court hearing, which had been scheduled for January 1996, was canceled, and the case dismissed.
Magistrelli said she doesn’t regret the disciplinary methods used with foster children at High Winds Youth. She defends use of the root cellar and the timeout room, and claims many of the foster children at High Winds Youth had severe behavioral problems and showed great improvement after living there.
Magistrelli denies making any child wear urine-soaked or feces-soiled clothing. Three of the foster children, according to a report dated Oct. 3, 1995, had trouble controlling urination and bowel movements.
“We found feces under mattresses and in closets,” Magistrelli said. “These kids were hard to handle. They were some of the most damaged kids in the state.”
Magistrelli said they would tie the child with Down syndrome to a tree or swingset to keep him from wandering off. She said he once walked the three-tenths of a mile to Highway 24 and sat in the middle of the road.
Magistrelli said she used the root cellar and timeout room for discipline. She said she believes in corporal punishment.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” she said. “I don’t think spanking is abuse. My definition of abuse is putting a child in front of a TV. But then they don’t learn to work, get outside to play or learn to be creative. That’s what we saw in a lot of foster homes, putting the kids in front of a big TV. Their brains turn to mush when all they do is play video games or watch TV. We tried to provide creative stimulus.
“I don’t regret anything we did,” Magistrelli said. “The root cellar helped kids grow and get better.”
Potatoes and carrots were at the bottom of the root cellar, and children were expected to separate rotten vegetables to put in the compost pile, according to Sheriff’s reports.
Clark has a different opinion about putting children in the root cellar.
“It’s bizarre,” she said. “It’s shocking.”
LIVING IN FEAR
Magistrelli blames Clark for dredging up the old charges. Clark denies using Schley as her mouthpiece.
“That’s not how I do business,” Clark said. “I had just heard rumors about it, like a lot of people.”
In a Sheriff’s report dated March 28, 1996, Ann Joyce, of the District Attorney’s office, “advised that based upon a lack of evidence, no charges would be filed against Bob and Karen Magistrelli. This case will therefore be cleared by exceptional means.”
Sgt. Michael Schaller, of the Sheriff’s Office, gave three reasons why a case would be cleared by exceptional means, per the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Those are death of an offender, victim refused to testify, or prosecution declined by district attorney. Schaller could not say which of the three was applied in this case.
Magistrelli, who has seven children, said her family cared for approximately 20 foster children in five years. They were paid about $1,916 per child per month, according to Magistrelli and state documents. High Winds Youth could have as many as six foster children at once, ages 5-18.
“I was a special-education teacher, so we had the right to apply for a high-level license, a Child Placement Agency Specialized Group Center,” Magistrelli said. “We had kids nobody else would take. One of our daughters was almost strangled, almost raped by those kids.
“People criticizing us don’t have those kids on their couch. Let them stay at their home for a weekend. Our son slept with a baseball bat. My husband slept with a billy club. We lived in a lot of fear those years.”
AN ISSUE OF TRUST
Magistrelli produced what she said are supportive letters from caseworkers, from foster children who lived at High Winds Youth, and from those children’s relatives.
“The abuse was by the state, not us,” Magistrelli said. “They took those kids away from us and damaged them emotionally.”
Magistrelli insists the state had an agenda against High Winds Youth and that she isn’t bothered by old allegations or new criticism. And she shrugs off criticism that her past would make her unable to oversee the county’s DHS.
Magistrelli said she knows the DHS system “better than 90 percent of the people. That makes me the best overseer to DHS. The public is the consumer, and I know it from the consumer perspective. I know it from the foster parent’s perspective, from the foster child’s perspective.”
Magistrelli then fired a salvo at her opponent, who is married but has no children.
“Sallie’s perspective is from a bureaucratic angle,” she said. “I’m more qualified than a liaison without children.”
Clark took exception to that and noted that she is vice-chairwoman of the Colorado Counties Health and Human Services Steering Committee, which deals with legislative issues at the state and federal level, and is on the state’s Child Welfare Allocation Committee.
“I work on a lot of human services issues in a leadership role,” Clark said. “I understand the system, and I’m very dedicated to kids. I want to make sure we have a system that works adequately. I want to make sure kids are safe.”
As for the man who seconded Magistrelli’s nomination at the county assembly, the 55-year-old Dorty was convicted twice for sexual assault on a child, in 1986 and 1995.
Magistrelli said she feels she is doing God’s work by helping men released from prison. At a recent Republican Women luncheon, Magistrelli defended her decision to have Dorty second her nomination.
“Because we do trust him,” she said. “He’s very well-spoken. It gives him a chance to start living a normal life. It wasn’t a kid’s event. We didn’t create a dangerous situation.”
Magistrelli said she relies on her faith to endure the criticism.
“I am at peace with myself,” she said. “I operate with the highest integrity. Those that don’t see it, don’t matter. I don’t answer to you or to voters. I’m accountable to God.”
Contact Bob Stephens: 636-0276
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