Failed to Death: Child welfare office defends itself against judge's tirade

10:51 PM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
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ADAMS COUNTY - For the first time, the boss of the child welfare office defends his department to 9Wants to Know after a judge publicly ripped into caseworkers and called for a grand jury investigation.

"In no instance did a child die because of incompetence, malfeasance or us not doing our job," said Darwin Cox, the child and family services director in Adams County. "Our department is a very well run agency. We have great outcomes with the families that we serve."

9Wants to Know took a closer look at the fatal case of toddler Michael Harris, in which district court Judge Chris Melonakis made his comments.

In a highly unusual barrage of words from the bench, Melonakis lashed out at child welfare caseworkers during the sentencing of Donald Scarlett, 33, who has been convicted of killing Harris.

In a jailhouse interview, Scarlett told 9Wants to Know he's innocent.

Harris was killed after severe abuse in February of 2011, just two months before what would have been his second birthday.

"It is appalling the level of neglect," Melonakis said of caseworkers from the bench. "Not by the mother, which is appalling, but by the state. It's ridiculous. It transcends the boundaries of human decency. Children die and bureaucrats still have their job."

Are caseworkers to blame?

A state child fatality review report says caseworkers failed to document prior neglect and drug use in the Harris home in three past investigations.

The same fatality report says Harris was born with marijuana in his system and was often surrounded by family members who used meth and allowed drugs to be within easy reach of the toddler.

Two months before his death, Michael Harris was given back to his mother, Rose Key, after caseworkers and a judge believed she proved competent after finishing parenting classes.

Key was recently convicted of neglect because she didn't do anything to stop the abuse.

The fatality review report also notes Scarlett was a new boyfriend in Key's life and still needed a background check. Scarlett had a marijuana charge but no violent offenses on his record.

"Sometimes in some cases you have someone who kills a child and they have no criminal background whatsoever," Darwin Cox said.

Cox agreed to speak with 9Wants to Know in general terms about child welfare, but would not talk about the Harris investigation, including how caseworkers handled the case. Cox said confidentiality laws prohibit him from talking about specifics.

"In the six years I've been here, we've had a number of children who've died, but in no instance did a child die because of incompetence, malfeasance or us not doing our job," Cox said.

Cox stressed several times during his interview the courts put a high level of scrutiny over his department when a decision is made to remove a child from a home or when it's time to return them to parents.

"This is really hard work because if we don't take kids away, and something happens, people are upset with us. And we get that. That happens. And if we do take kids away, then of course people get upset about that."

Cox said there are thousands of children in Colorado with success stories who've been saved by child welfare offices. He expressed frustration the media don't focus on those stories.

The convicted killer speaks

"Well, I know I didn't do it," Donald Scarlett told 9Wants to Know during an interview at the Adams County Detention Center.

Scarlett claims investigators and the jury assumed he was guilty from the beginning of the case. "The jury had tunnel vision even before the trial started," he said.

Scarlett blames his girlfriend for the abuse and plans to appeal his case, claiming expert witnesses, including doctors, contradicted themselves and routinely changed their stories.

During the interview with 9Wants to Know, Scarlett didn't express any sadness or remorse for Michael Harris.

Jojola: What do you think when you look at Michael's picture today?
Scarlett: He was a happy. Yeah, he was happy.
Jojola: You didn't kill this little boy?
Scarlett: No.
Jojola: Why should people watching this tonight believe you?
Scarlett: 'Cuz everybody has tunnel vision.

Scarlett couldn't explain why he called his girlfriend before he called 911 on the day he found Michael unconscious and cold.

Karen Steinhauser, who prosecuted child abuse cases in Denver for 20 years, found Scarlett's delay in calling 911 telling.

"Another thing that's really a red flag for doctors, for investigators, for professionals, is the delay in reporting," Steinhauser said.

In the wake of comments by Judge Melonakis, no state agency has announced any sort of investigation into Adams County. Melonakis declined an interview through a court secretary who said he doesn't want to hurt the case as Scarlett files an appeal.

Scarlett has been sentenced to 42 years in prison while Michael's mother was handed a 16 year sentence.

Read more 9Wants to Know investigations into child welfare in Colorado.

Have a comment or tip for investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola? Call him at 303-871-1425 or e-mail him

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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