The Accused

Colorado keeps an extensive list of suspected child abusers, but is anyone checking it twice?

Clifford Brown hates lies. As a child, if he fudged the truth even a little, his dad would somehow know, and Clifford would feel the blush of shame heating his cheeks. His dad once showed him what it's like to be the person on the other end of a lie by purposely deceiving him. Clifford can't recall the substance of that deceit now, but he remembers how it felt, and he grew up sharing his father's disdain for lying. So when one of Clifford's foster daughters told a very serious lie about him, it was the worst thing anyone could have done to him.

Brown and his wife, Susan, became foster parents more than five years ago. Clifford had a daughter from a previous marriage, but he and Susan didn't have any children of their own. After Clifford's daughter, Misty, graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, she got involved with Boys Hope Girls Hope, a nonprofit organization that runs group homes for troubled kids across the country. Misty signed on as a housemother at a boys' home in New York, and the Browns were inspired by her desire to help young people. Plus, with Misty no longer there, the Browns' six-bedroom Colorado Springs home felt empty. A good friend of theirs was a foster parent, so the Browns thought that might be a way for them to help kids. Their friend put them in touch with the now-defunct Colorado Springs branch of the Jacob Center, a child-placement agency, and the Browns took in their first foster daughter in January 1996.

Susan and Clifford Brown say they'll never be foster parents again because of the Central Registry.
James Bludworth
Susan and Clifford Brown say they'll never be foster parents again because of the Central Registry.
Attorney Rowe Stayton has worked on more than 300 Central Registry cases.
James Bludworth
Attorney Rowe Stayton has worked on more than 300 Central Registry cases.

The couple was told that there weren't enough foster parents willing to take troubled teenage girls, so even though they had originally wanted young children, they agreed to foster older kids. And because the placement agency had a policy of not mixing boys and girls, the Browns never had any boys in their home. They usually had four girls at a time, some of whom stayed for only a couple of weeks before being reunited with their families; others remained in the Brown home for more than a year. They had fifteen foster daughters in all.

Clifford and Susan came to love many of the girls as their own. And most of the girls regarded the Browns as their parents; although they addressed them as Cliff and Sue, the girls would introduce them to friends and teachers as Mom and Dad. For many of the girls, it was their first time living in a two-parent home. It was also the first time they'd known stability or been forced to abide by rules.

Sunday is family day in the Brown household, and the Browns liked to take their foster daughters on excursions to the Garden of the Gods or the skating rink or a movie. But one of their rules was that no one left until all of the girls had completed their chores. It wasn't easy dealing with teens who came to their home with troubled pasts that involved sexual abuse or drug and alcohol addictions, but Clifford and Susan believe that kids fare best if they're allowed to make mistakes rather than simply being told what to do.

"Instead of telling them not to drink, I'd tell them that when they go to a party, see how ugly others look when they're drunk," Clifford says. "They'd come home and tell me that what I'd said was true."

"For them to even go out was a major process," Susan says. The Browns had to get permission from the Jacob Center before the girls could go to parties, and the placement agency had to conduct background checks on other kids' parents if the girls were going to sleep at friends' houses.

The Browns also believe that kids learn by example. Although they enjoy a drink of whiskey and a cigarette now and then, they say they never drank or smoked when they had girls in their home. And as devout Christians, they tried to show the girls how faith could help them cope in times of trouble. They credit themselves with helping several of their foster daughters get off drugs and with getting many of them to abstain from sex. In addition, Clifford passed along another of his deeply held values to the girls: the importance of education. While living under his roof, the girls had to stay in school and do their homework; three of them went on to attend community college.

Because of their success with troubled girls, Susan, a real estate broker, and Clifford, who owns a property-maintenance business, say they earned a reputation as one of the best sets of foster parents in El Paso County. Guardians ad litem -- attorneys who are appointed by the court to represent children in child abuse and neglect cases -- would specifically request the Browns when they needed to find homes for girls.

All of that changed after thirteen-year-old Carol came to live with them.

Clifford and Susan didn't know much about Carol before she first arrived except that she'd been sexually abused by her father, who is black. (Her mother is white.) Carol's caseworker thought the Browns would be an ideal match because Clifford is black and Susan is white; having foster parents similar to her own, the caseworker figured, would help Carol learn to trust adults again. (Carol's name has been changed because she is a juvenile.)

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