Mother says she needed help before dousing children with gasoline

2:18 PM, Nov 19, 2012   |    comments
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Findings from the State Child Fatality Review Team; May 30, 2002

 PDF Document: 2002 DHS child abuse reviews

"Not a day goes by, not one, where I don't think about what I've done," Maria Gardner said.

Gardner spoke to 9Wants to Know from the Denver Women's Correctional Center where she is serving an 85-year prison sentence. She was living in Colorado Springs when she started the Jan. 28, 2008 fire.

"They should have taken my children from the home," she said.

El Paso County Department of Human Services caseworkers had received complaints about Gardner or her family at least seven times before. Her kids were never taken from her home.

When her husband committed suicide in October 2007, Gardner says she became depressed.

County DHS workers received information in January 2008 that Gardner was planning to kill herself and her children. Gardner says a caseworker showed up at her house three days before the fire.

"She said she was depressed herself and was taking anti depressants," Gardner said.

Gardner said she had already lost trust in caseworkers. She said she reported abuse in her family when she was young.

"Nothing came of it, nothing," Gardner said.

Though she didn't trust DHS employees, the caseworker did convince Gardner to go see a crisis center therapist that very night.

"The caseworker tried to problem-solve with Ms. Gardner, including making a plan to take the children to a babysitter so that Ms. Gardner could go to the Crisis Center that night for an evaluation," a state review of Gardner's DHS interactions showed.

The therapist who Gardner saw, did not believe Gardner was in danger, state records show.

Gardner and the caseworker spoke the following day and state records show Gardner said she was fine.

The caseworker and the therapist missed seeing Gardner's real state of mind.

Three days later, Gardner lit her home on fire.

"I stood in the middle of my bed and went in a big circle pouring the gasoline and I lit it," she said.

Ashya Joseph died as a result of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.

"They should have taken my children from the home and ultimately, I'd say, put me on at least a 48-hour suicide watch," Gardner said.

Shirley Rhodus, who oversees El Paso County's Child Welfare system, says the caseworker did what she should have done by getting Gardner to see a therapist.

"I don't believe we made mistake on this case," Rhodus told 9Wants to Know. "I don't think we should have removed the kids in this case with the information we had at the time."

El Paso County has now changed its policy when parents threaten suicide.

Caseworkers now remove children and do a more in-depth investigation than they have done in the past. The investigation continues even if a therapist says a parent is not in danger.

Gardner said had she trusted county DHS caseworkers she would not have burned her children. She said she is to blame and wants other parents to look at her situation and make a different choice.

"It's okay to trust someone. There is help. There is," Gardner said.

(KUSA-TV © 2012 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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