By Christopher N. Osher, Jennifer Brown and Jordan Steffen
The Denver Post
Police and child protection workers in Colorado endanger the lives of abused and neglected children by failing to work together despite state laws meant to ensure collaboration, a review of state child death records shows.
Colorado law requires county human service agencies to have written agreements with all local law enforcement detailing how they will cooperate to save children and investigate their deaths. But when asked by The Denver Post to produce them, 16 percent of the counties could not.
Even if every county had an agreement in place, that wouldn't resolve the distrust that can exist between police officials and child caseworkers.
"We work in an an industry of punishment, and they work in an industry of helping," said Sgt. Jim Gerhardt of the Thornton Police Department. "They actually go well together. If you don't understand that, you will get officers resenting the touchy-feely social workers, and you will have the social service workers thinking cops are Nazi Gestapo."
After Tamyrii Randall died at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, a state human services review of her death concluded that a breakdown in communication between law enforcement and the El Paso County Department of Human Services played a role.
Human Services had helped Tamyrii's mother, Tanesa, get her own apartment after her boyfriend was accused of sexual assault on 4-year-old Tamyrii.
Randall promised to stay away from the boyfriend, Tristan Price, but the month after moving into her apartment, the two got into a domestic dispute. Randall was evicted and landed in a shelter.
She eventually moved back in with Price.
The state review noted that Colorado Springs police did not tell child protection workers about that domestic dispute, even though social services was still monitoring the
Tristan Price was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing Tamyrii Randall, 4. Price was the boyfriend of Tamyrii's mother, Tanesa.
Price killed Tamyrii about six months later, on Sept. 26, 2008, with force that nearly tore her liver in two. The coroner found eight broken ribs, three of which likely had been broken weeks earlier. Price pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The state's child fatality review of Tamyrii's death noted that the El Paso County Department of Human Services did not have the required memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Such an agreement now exists, and it includes a recommendation that might have helped Tamyrii: a joint review and investigation between child welfare workers and Colorado Springs police when there is domestic violence in a child's home.
El Paso County officials said that in addition to creating the cooperative agreement, they've made other improvements.
Now, key child protection workers work out of police stations, said Karen Logan, the child welfare intake manager in El Paso County. Police come to weekly child protective meetings. She attends quarterly meetings with the Colorado Springs police.
"We've always had a relationship with law enforcement agencies in this county," she said. "From time to time, depending on staff changes, it might have been strained, but it was never nonexistent."
State legislators, recognizing cooperation is critical in protecting children, passed a law in 1988 requiring written agreements between county human service agencies and every law enforcement agency in the county. The agreements are supposed to detail exactly how they will cooperate to ensure kids are safe and that any child deaths are properly investigated.
And yet, when The Post requested copies of those memorandums of understanding, 10 of Colorado's 64 counties never produced the documents. Of those counties that did, seven drafted them after The Post's request. Six others hadn't updated them since the early 1990s.
A third of the memorandums of understanding didn't have any signatures that would indicate whether police officials or child welfare workers ever read the documents.
Betty Donovan, director of Gilpin County's Department of Human Services, said she has a 15-year-old, outdated agreement with the Black Hawk Police Department - one she said was so poorly drafted that it was useless. That's better than what her agency has in place with the sheriff's department or Central City police, she said.
Written documents don't even exist for those law enforcement agencies.
"As far as a formal agreement, one that would be the best one, I don't have a good one right now, which I know I have failed in," Donovan said.
The agreements that do exist also differed markedly in the breadth of topics covered. Law enforcement officials in Ouray and San Miguel counties haven't updated their cooperative agreements since 1995, the year they signed the three-page agreements.
In contrast, Denver's child protection team in 2008 negotiated a detailed, 42-page pact with the Denver Police Department, the Denver District Attorney's office and Denver Health Medical Center.
Allan Gerstle, the director of social services for Ouray and San Miguel, said state law doesn't require the agreements to be updated or signed.
"You don't do something you don't have to do unless it's statutory," he said, adding that the counties he oversees are sparsely populated, so collegial relationships already exist between police and his workers.
"I know the cops, and they know me," Gerstle said. "They call me at home. They know my caseworker. They call her at home. We don't have an issue."
Theodore Cross, a research professor at the children and family research center at the University of Illinois, said the written agreements do matter.
He reviewed 4,539 child-maltreatment cases across 36 states and found that communities with written agreements between law enforcement and child welfare agencies were nearly twice as likely to have conducted police investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect than other areas.
"When you have so many different professionals involved and when the cases are so complicated and when the stakes are so high, it's a well-established principle: the necessity for coordination in professional circles," Cross said.
The Colorado Department of Human Services, however, does not monitor how law enforcement agencies and child protection workers interact or whether those agreements are actually in place.
Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said he wants the signed agreements but, more importantly, wants them to be well thought out. He said he has refrained from ordering all counties to immediately put them in place to ensure they aren't just going through the motions.
"We absolutely are talking to counties about our entire array of child protective services, so where does an MOU - because the state says you have to have an MOU - become more important to me than 'Are your cases done on time?' " Bicha said. "We're trying to balance a whole bunch of things right now to improve our system."
Colorado was put on notice a decade ago that a lack of cooperation between police and child protection workers was an issue.
A 2002 report, prepared for the Colorado Department of Human Services, reviewed child abuse deaths from 1997 through 2001 and found that conflicts between county child protection staff and law enforcement officers were one of several issues hampering efforts to protect abused and neglected children.
That review found "particularly crucial" the need for police to inform human services workers of a child's death so that child protection workers and police can work together to "determine the safety of the remaining children and family members."
Yet years later, problems persist.
Just last year, the Colorado State Patrol did not alert any county human services agency that a mother and her boyfriend had been charged with child abuse resulting in death and child abuse resulting in significant bodily injury after 4-year-old Charles Pettus Jr. was killed in a single-car rollover crash, a state human services review of his death found.
Child protection workers in Summit County, where the wreck happened, and El Paso County, where the family lived, were not told that Charles' siblings - ages 6 months, 3, 6 and 8 - were not wearing seatbelts or in a child seat at the time of the wreck.
Eventually, county agencies learned of the wreck from other sources, prompting them to investigate more deeply a family that already had been accused three other times that year of drug abuse and neglecting the children so severely that their teeth were "black and decaying."
Gerhardt, now detailed to the North Metro Task Force, a multijurisdictional drug unit, said such communication failures are common. He recalled conducting a training session in another state where child welfare workers complained police never returned their calls. It turned out they were using pager numbers because they were never told police had switched to cellphones.
He knows firsthand what a difference cooperation can make. Within six months of pushing his own staff in Thornton to work more closely with social services, the number of cases police referred to child protection workers was up by 70 percent.
Of the 59 abuse and neglect deaths reviewed by the state since 2007, the Colorado Department of Human Services found 13 instances where authorities failed to communicate, including a lack of cooperation during death investigations and a failure by police to alert caseworkers about children in danger. Other times, child protection workers failed to do the simple task of doing a criminal-background check on those accused of abuse.
Experts believe law officers had contact with most children who die of abuse and neglect.
Christopher N. Osher: 303-954-1747 or firstname.lastname@example.org