Story Time

How the bizarre child-abuse investigation of a school counselor became a crusade against troublesome parents -- courtesy of the Colorado Education Association.

Perkins attorney Dale Parrish refers to the coaching charge as "a may-have-been. There were a lot of children making a lot of statements that are extremely similar, if not identical," he says. "How do you explain that? Did they all talk to each other? Did they all talk to Del Rae? Did they check their stories to get them straight? We're not even in the realm of reality. They can prove my client had contact with a few of these children, but not all."

Yet Perkins's role in the case is hard to ignore. According to one parent's affidavit, she was "consumed with the DUSO program...She made it perfectly clear that her objectives were to change the curriculum at the school, and particularly to get the counseling programs and Mr. Shepard out of the school."

After her meeting with Shepard in May, Perkins borrowed the counselor's copy of a DUSO handbook and found what she considered to be a significant penciled notation in the margin: "d-god," short for "demigod." She brought the book to the attention of Social Services investigator Patti Dean, who would later testify that the word was "dyad"--a couple, a pair--and didn't appear to be any kind of reference to spiritual powers.

Shepard's lawsuit claims that Perkins insisted that sheriff's officers question her own daughter repeatedly, even though the girl had made no claims of abuse.

"Del Rae Perkins was asked not to speak to any more children, yet she had," Sergeant Tim Palmer of the Larimer County Sheriff's office testified in a court hearing in the Shepard libel suit last year. "It certainly confused the investigation. It gave less credibility to the witnesses."

By mid-summer of 1992 the district attorney's office had concluded that the children's accusations of abuse didn't hold up. Medical exams provided no evidence of physical or sexual abuse, and kids who supposedly witnessed or participated in games involving improper touching failed to confirm the accusers' stories. And those stories--particularly those told by the Sanderson children, who'd had considerable contact with Del Rae Perkins--were growing more preposterous as the weeks dragged on.

At the same time, many of the parents' concerns were echoed back to them by officials and therapists who had interviewed their children. A psychologist told Sergeant Palmer that, in his opinion, Shepard's methods were "harmful to the mental well-being of small children." After initial interviews with Kimmy Sanderson's son and daughter, Palmer told Sanderson that "something definitely has happened to your children." Patti Dean told her that "children don't make up these kind of stories" and that there may well have been some kind of abuse going on.

Ginger Lawrence was told by Palmer and Dean that her daughter's allegations "were the most direct that they'd had"--but that her evidence had been compromised because Dean had done exactly what she'd told parents not to do. "They said that in Patti Dean's pursuit of getting at the truth in a hurry, she asked a leading question that she shouldn't have asked," Lawrence says, "and therefore they were discrediting [my daughter] for answering that question."

There were also contradictory accounts about the conditions under which the children's meetings with Shepard took place. The counseling office at Cache La Poudre is located next to those of the principal and the special-education teacher, with a window in the door, but various witnesses claimed that the door was sometimes locked and the window covered with paper. (Shepard has denied this.) And Shepard was unable to produce any substantial records of his meetings with students--a lack of paperwork that's been particularly troubling to the parents' attorneys.

"Here's a guy who's a counselor, and he doesn't keep record one of who he has counseled," says Dan Lynch, attorney for the Hellners and Lawrences. "There's absolutely no record of any counseling of any kid at any time that was ever produced, although those were requested. They said they don't have them. I don't believe that. That isn't logical."

The official confusion about the case is reflected in one memo written by a member of the child-protection team of the Larimer County Department of Social Services, summarizing the agency's findings in the case. The memo notes that sixteen children "gave very explicit details about their involvement with J. Shepardson," and that while some of the stories were similar, most were not credible. Patti Dean had been unable to substantiate the charges, the author noted, but she did feel that "information given by the children cannot be discredited."

In later drafts of the memo, Shepard's name was corrected and the word "discredited" was changed to "disproved." Unable to make up its collective mind, the agency finally settled on an equivocation: "Patti feels that information given by the children cannot be disproved/proved."

In July a member of the district attorney's office met with parents to inform them that no charges would be filed. Several parents responded belligerently, accusing officials of botching the investigation and covering up for the school. Among the most emotional were Kimmy Sanderson and Del Rae Perkins.

Sanderson, Sergeant Palmer would later testify, was particularly "loud" and "demeaning." "She became very personal toward me, that I was covering things up, that I wasn't doing a good job," he said.

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