By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
In November 1998, an employee of a local hospital called the Denver Department of Human Services child-abuse hotline to report that a patient, four-year-old Ben, had been admitted with bruises on his body. Ben's father had taken him to the emergency room after he fell off a bookshelf he'd climbed onto. Doctors and nurses noticed that Ben had other bruises that couldn't be explained by the fall, however, so they asked him how he'd gotten them. Ben told them that his mom, Lisa, had been hitting and pinching him. A caseworker from the agency investigated Ben's mother and decided to take Ben and his five-year-old sister, Rebecca, to the Family Crisis Center, a temporary holding place for abused kids. After a few days, the caseworker placed Ben and Rebecca with their father, George, who was no longer living with Lisa. (The names of everyone involved in the case have been changed.) But George later returned them to their mother without the department's permission. When the DDHS caseworker found this out the next month, the kids were sent to live with their aunt and uncle. Theirs was one of more than 500 dependency-and-neglect (D&N) cases that originated in the DDHS that year -- and every year -- before winding their way through the child welfare system and Denver Juvenile Court. Far too often, these cases aren't resolved for many months -- even years. But the system is now undergoing drastic changes, thanks to a state law that has already been implemented in most counties and took effect in Denver in November. The law, called Expedited Permanency Planning (EPP), requires that abused and neglected kids under the age of six -- and their siblings -- be placed in a permanent home within a year of being removed from their original residence. Before EPP, the federal guideline for placing kids in permanent homes was eighteen months, but even that wasn't always met in Colorado. Denver, which has the most D&N cases of any county, is one of the last to implement the new law.
Expedited Permanency Planning was born in Adoree Blair's living room, which, like the rest of the rooms in her Littleton home, smells like baby. Plastic toys in bright yellows, reds, blues and greens clutter the floor, and a basket stuffed with diapers and baby lotion sits on the coffee table. Blair and her husband, Jim, have four grown children. But in the last thirteen years, they have fostered another 35 kids. At present, they have two boys -- brothers, aged two and one -- living with them.
It was one child in particular, however -- a little girl Blair calls "Sarah" -- who left an indelible impact on the Blair family and, eventually, on all abused and neglected children in Colorado.
When the Blairs took in two-month-old Sarah from the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services in 1988, she weighed only six pounds; Blair says the caseworkers told her that Sarah had been starved and that when she cried, her parents had bashed her head into a wall. She'd had a fractured skull and arm, and her head wasn't growing normally. She was the Blairs' second foster child. The first had returned home after just three weeks with them, and, Blair says, "We thought being foster parents was a piece of cake."
Sarah showed them a different story. "I'd go to pick her up or change her diaper, and she would cringe," Blair says. "I'd never seen a baby with such fear in her eyes."
Blair has two large photo albums filled with pictures of Sarah. In one, taken early on, she's lying in the arms of Blair's youngest daughter, who was six at the time. A tiny bundle in pink pajamas, Sarah's fear is palpable: She is cowering, her shoulders scrunched in as if to protect herself, and her wide blue eyes hold a look of terror.
The Blairs became foster parents only because Adoree, now 52, wanted a fifth child; her husband didn't want to put one more kid through college, though, so they agreed to become foster parents, caring for children only until permanent homes could be found for them. But the couple fell in love with Sarah. They considered her their own and were willing to adopt her. The Blairs took her everywhere -- on camping trips, to Mexico, to the Caribbean. In later photos, snapped during those family trips, Sarah is smiling and looking more like a normal, happy child.
While the Blairs were caring for the new addition to their family, Sarah's parents were slowly complying with their treatment plans -- the list of requirements parents must fulfill to get their kids back -- which included parenting and anger-management classes, psychiatric evaluations and twice-weekly visits with Sarah.
But the caseworker who monitored these visits told the Blairs that Sarah screamed each time for the full hour. When she returned, the Blairs say, Sarah sometimes continued screaming and occasionally had finger marks on her neck.
In court, the parents were granted one delay after another. "They'd get a continuance just for saying they'd made an attempt to go to their parenting class. Or they'd make an appointment for therapy, but it wouldn't be for another two weeks, so their attorneys would ask for more time, and they'd get it," Blair says. "Those were the days when kids would go back to their parents no matter what."