Written by: Christopher Osher, The Denver Post
A GRAVE FOR A LITTLE GIRL. Alize Vick, left whose body rests at Roselawn Cemetery in Pueblo, was killed at the age of 2 in October 2007 after her foster mother, Jules Cuneo, hurled her five feet, head-first into a coffee table. Based on the reports filed by her foster mother, Alize was extremely accident prone during the five months she lived with Cuneo. But a neighbor, Mary Ann Hartman, could hear what was going on inside the house through a baby monitor and began recording what prosecutors later described as the ongoing torture and abuse of Alize by Cuneo. The recording wouldn't be enough.
Hartman's baby monitor captured the 23-month-old's screams and stifled sobs as her 300-pound foster mother sat on her. She recorded the horror coming from the house where the foster mother yelled and ridiculed and the children cried.
Hartman mailed the recording to El Paso County child welfare authorities with a note: "She really needs you. I am doing my part by writing to you, but you must do the rest."
Then Hartman waited. She called the county when she heard more screaming, when she heard foster mother Jules Cuneo refuse to give the toddler food.
She wondered if anyone would rescue the girl with the toothy grin and big brown eyes. No one did.
More than 40 percent of the children who died of abuse and neglect in the last six years in Colorado had families or caregivers known to child protection workers who could have saved them.
Those 72 children - many beaten, starved, suffocated or burned - died despite warnings from relatives, neighbors, teachers and strangers, or even the baby monitor recording of blatant abuse sent to caseworkers. Many of their deaths were not only preventable, they were foretold.
It happens, on average, every 30 days. Somewhere in Colorado, a police officer investigates a child's death from abuse and neglect only to learn the victim is a familiar face to county social workers.
Nine such kids have died so far this year.
A Denver Post and 9NEWS investigation of the Colorado child welfare system revealed a pattern of disturbing failures in which warnings were ignored, cases closed without even a visit and children given to foster parents who killed them.
Caseworkers and their supervisors failed to complete investigations in the time required by law 18 times before children ended up dead. They routinely - at least 31 times - did not contact neighbors and acquaintances who might have told them a child was at risk of harm or even death. More than half of the time, caseworkers violated at least one state rule when conducting abuse investigations, according to an analysis of fatality case reviews by the state Department of Human Services.
The system is plagued by a lack of accountability and transparency - every county in Colorado decides how to run its own child protection department, with minimal input from the state. It is so disjointed, state officials cannot pinpoint the average workload of caseworkers, and cannot fire or discipline a county employee.
Despite years of warnings from expert panels and earnest expressions of concern from three governors and legions of legislators, Colorado's $375 million system to protect kids from dying remains stubbornly broken.
More kids have died of abuse and neglect in this state in the last five years than in the five years before that, and an increasing number of those children were known to child welfare workers before they were killed. This is despite the highly publicized starving death of 7-year-old Chandler Grafner in 2007 that galvanized attention on the child welfare system.
"It's 2012, and all the advancements we have in our society, whether it's technological or medical, we can't figure out how to keep kids safe?" said Stephanie Villafuerte, director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that often represents foster children. "You are talking about dead children."
CAREGIVER Jules Cuneo, who was the foster mother for 2-year-old Alize Vick, is serving a 32-year prison sentence for the child's death. (handout)
No one at El Paso County took Mary Ann Hartman's letter and baby monitor recording seriously enough.
Alize Vick, the girl across the street, died five months later, in October 2007, after her foster mother hurled her five feet, head-first into a coffee table. Cuneo was enraged because the toddler wouldn't talk to her.
A caseworker said she listened to the recording and visited the home. But the worker determined it wasn't enough to take Alize away from Cuneo.
In many other cases that resulted in dead children, a caseworker never came at all.
Almost half of the children known to social services who died of abuse and neglect since 2007 had at least one call "screened out," or not investigated, because child welfare workers deemed the allegations did not meet the threshold for child abuse or they didn't have enough information.
Caseworkers had seven chances to help Ciarea Witherspoon's family before she was left alone in a bathtub.
Seven times - the majority of them before Ciarea was born - someone called authorities to say things were not right at the family's house. The allegations piled up.
What would it take for authorities to intervene?
Not the reports of guns and fighting. Not the claims that her father threatened to throw her mother in the trash and that he threatened to kill her. Ciarea's 7-year-old brother had bruises and went to school with a black eye. Her brother was covered in feces, acted much younger than his age, and he sometimes pretended to slam his head into a wall and said his stepfather hurt him. He told people at school he might get cocaine under the Christmas tree.
In every instance, authorities chose not to intervene. Three of the seven calls were screened out. The four other times, caseworkers assessed whether there were safety threats and ultimately recommended against opening an investigation.
Then in June 2009, 6-month-old Ciarea and her 2-year-old brother were left alone at bath time. By the time her father returned from answering the door and cooking some chicken, she was face down in the water and unresponsive. She lived for nine more months - on a ventilator, with a feeding tube and a leg amputated due to an infection.
As she lay unconscious in the hospital, the state put her in foster care. Ciarea died March 18, 2010.
Problems were "training issues"
Caseworkers assigned to Ciarea's family violated several state regulations, including failing to interview key people after allegations of abuse prior to the little girl's death. Arapahoe County officials told The Post there was "absolutely no connection" between the policy violations and the girl's death, and that the problems were caseworker "training issues."
That happens regularly.
In more than half of child abuse deaths in the last six years, caseworkers did not follow state policy regarding how to investigate neglect and abuse allegations, according to The Post's review of state fatality reports. Of 59 reports released to the newspaper, 31 listed violations of state rules.
Caseworkers erred by screening out calls that deserved follow-up, failing to check on children within the time allowed by law and neglecting to communicate with law officers or another county's child welfare division when a child moved, according to state reviews of the deaths.
Each case is a judgment call, and caseworkers can't always prevent evil, said Ruby Richards, child protection manager for the Colorado Department of Human Services.
"Caseworkers don't kill these kids," she said.
Since 2007, the state has reviewed the deaths of 30 children who had an assigned caseworker - a worker who at minimum was tasked with visiting a home to find out whether ongoing oversight was needed. These are cases where allegations were not screened out but were elevated to require at least one follow-up.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Maria Gardner stands in her room at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility in Denver. Gardner poured gasoline over her five children then lit them on fire, killing 16-month-old Ashya Joseph and severely burning the other four on Jan. 28, 2008. In a plea agreement, she pleaded guilty to child abuse causing death and four counts of child abuse causing serious bodily injury. Gardner is now serving 85 years in prison. Gardner says the Department of Human Services should have done more. "They should have taken my children from my home, and they should have put me somewhere " (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)
That included Maria Darlene Gardner and her family.
El Paso County caseworkers were warned on Jan. 23, 2008, by an employee at a family services center that Gardner, distraught over her husband's suicide, was making funeral arrangements for herself and her five young children.
A caseworker tried to "problem solve" with Gardner and helped her make a plan for babysitting so Gardner could go to therapy. The caseworker called Gardner the next day, and the mother told her she was "fine" and not suicidal. But five days later, on Jan. 28, Gardner gathered her five children in her Colorado Springs home, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire.
Four children survived, but not 16-month-old Ashya Joseph.
One child was on fire as he called 911.
"Why did you? ... You killed them. Why did you kill them? I loved them," the 8-year-old boy says during the phone call. The children's burns covered 20 to 90 percent of their bodies.
Before Gardner set the fire, she looked into a video camera and explained she couldn't live now that her husband was dead, and she wanted to bring her kids with her. She is serving an 85-year prison sentence.
A state review of Ashya's death found El Paso County caseworkers had been alerted to problems involving physical abuse in the home six other times, beginning in 2004, but did not remove the children.
The job of a caseworker is partly about following the law and partly about following instinct.
Caseworkers teeter along a thin line of respecting people's rights to privacy in raising their children and the legal definition of abuse and neglect.
Parents can spank their kids, but they aren't allowed to leave serious bruises, bleeding, burns or bone fractures, according to state law. The law doesn't say what age a child can stay home alone; it's a judgment call.
State law says child abuse includes the failure to provide "adequate food," but that's not exactly black and white. Just because a child's home has only a half loaf of bread and Pop-Tarts to last two weeks, that isn't necessarily cause to assign a caseworker.
The law also says abuse investigators must consider "accepted child-rearing practices" of the child's culture.
Caseworkers are criticized when they tear children away from their parents and crucified when a child on their watch ends up dead.
"Social services is damned if we do and damned if we don't," Richards said.
State officials concede there are failures, times when inaction ends in a child's death, but that there are examples, too, when a caseworker does everything right and a child still dies.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said caseworkers are "doing some of the hardest jobs on earth" and that state officials are reviewing child deaths, looking for ways caseworkers can improve.
"Was it they were busy? Were they overworked? Did they make several calls and they couldn't connect on this allegation of neglect? They made three calls and they just got distracted?" he said. "What we've tried to do is create solutions for those parts of the problem we control."
SAYING GOODBYE TO A BABY
Torrey Brown Sr., 26, talks with his mother Corinthiah Brown and funeral director Jehn-ai Jackson at Caldwell-Kirk Mortuary in Denver on June 3, 2012. Brown was making service arrangements for his son, Torrey Brown Jr., above.
The Commerce City Police Department found the remains of the 6-month-old infant May 31, 2012, at the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site. Sharrieckia Page, 23, the baby's mother, is charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Torrey Sr. says the Department of Human Services should have done more, "She talked about doing something before. Everybody took her serious but the Department of Human Services. She would call and make threats, 'I'm going to choke him '"
In the case of little Torrey Brown Jr., a caseworker chose not to intervene after the baby's grandmother warned his life was in danger.
Torrey's mother had said he was a crybaby, that she was going to strangle him, that he would end up in a casket, the infant's father and grandmother recalled.
Torrey's grandmother, Corinthiah Brown, got to keep Torrey for only one night after she told an Adams County caseworker she feared for his life. Then, after the caseworker told her she was overreacting, Brown said, she was ordered to give him back.
The baby was gone within a few months.
After a painstaking, 52-day search through trash 20 feet deep at a Commerce City landfill, authorities found Torrey's remains in May. Police say his mother suffocated the 6-month-old baby and threw him away.
Brown wishes caseworkers had taken her more seriously. And she wishes that even when they didn't that she hadn't backed down.
"I tried to stay out of the way," she said, tears streaking her cheeks as she sat in her Aurora living room. "I never thought it would turn out like this. This is what I get.