The Accused

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

The only other thing the Browns knew about Carol was that she had once been court-ordered not to be around animals, but the caseworker assured the Browns, who have three dogs, that she no longer posed a threat to pets.

Clifford and Susan first met Carol at a pre-placement visit at their house in April 1998. They could see she had problems, but they weren't too concerned. However, Misty, who was home for a visit, had a bad feeling about the girl. "Misty told us to make sure we lock our doors at night, because she seems like the kind of girl who will stab you in your sleep," says Susan, who brushed off the warning. "When we got her, we didn't think her issues were any more severe than any of the other girls'. They all had various problems." But none of their previous experiences had prepared the Browns for Carol.

Carol moved in with the Browns on June 2, 1998. Shortly thereafter, a psychologist performed a routine evaluation on her. "He asked us if we were sure we wanted to take her," Susan remembers. "If I'd asked him why he said that, he wouldn't have been able to tell me anything because of doctor-patient confidentiality." So Susan asked the Jacob Center for Carol's case file; she wanted to know more about the girl. But the Jacob Center ignored the request.

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.

It didn't take long for the Browns to see why the psychologist was concerned.

One afternoon, Carol asked if she could bathe the couple's puppy, a fluffy white Samoyed, and the Browns said yes. When Carol brought the puppy upstairs from his bath, though, his eyes had rolled back in his head and he was convulsing. Susan rushed him to the vet, but the doctor could find no medical cause for the seizure; the dog, who recovered from the inexplicable attack, hasn't had one since.

Then things began to turn up missing in the house. Some of Clifford's rings had vanished sometime earlier, including one that Susan's father had left him when he died. The other girls in the home noticed that some of their belongings were gone, too, and they accused Carol of stealing them. Tensions started to rise between the girls, who had all gotten along before Carol arrived; they didn't seem to trust each other anymore. Carol would tell one girl that another had badmouthed her, but when the girls started talking among themselves, they discovered that Carol had been making up stories in an apparent effort to pit them against each other. They confronted Carol about the lies and theft at weekly family meetings that the Browns held in their living room, and Carol was forced to fess up.

But things didn't improve. One night, Carol started a fire in a trash can in the basement while another girl was sleeping downstairs. Surprised that the smoke alarm hadn't sounded, Susan went to the basement to investigate and discovered that the battery was missing. "At that point, I asked if the Jacob Center would find another place for her, because I was concerned about our safety and the safety of the other girls," Susan says.

Eventually, Susan decided to log all of the incidents so that the Jacob Center would know the severity of Carol's problems, but the agency's therapist didn't respond right away. And the placement agency didn't seem to be looking for another home for the girl. So Susan and Clifford took things one day at a time.

One weekend day in early August, Carol left the house to take one of the dogs for a walk. She was only allowed to be gone for thirty minutes, but she didn't come back for four hours. The Browns later found out from another foster daughter that Carol had gone to her boyfriend's house. (She'd met the boy while they were both living at the Devereux Cleo Wallace residential treatment center; he still lived there during the week but stayed with a foster family on weekends.) When she finally returned home, Susan demanded to know where she'd been.

"She closed her mouth tight and wouldn't say anything," Susan says. "I told her to sit in a chair and wait until Clifford came home."

People at the Jacob Center had offered advice to the Browns about how to get troubled teens to open up to them. They suggested taking the girls on short car rides when they needed to discuss things; that way the girls wouldn't have to make eye contact with the foster parent and would not feel as intimidated about talking. Clifford was always the one who handled those car trips because, as Susan says, "he's the listener. They usually tell him the truth, and he's better at seeing if they're lying."

So Clifford and Carol got into the family van and drove around the neighborhood. Carol told him that she had gone to the park, where she'd met up with a couple of girls who said they had a dog they'd like to mate with hers; she explained to Clifford that she'd gone back to the girls' home to try to breed the dogs. Clifford didn't believe the ludicrous story, but he decided to give Carol a chance to think about what she was saying, so he pulled into a nearby 7-Eleven and bought them both something to drink. After he got back into the van and started driving home, Clifford said, "You'd better tell me the truth, because I hate a liar. If you're lying to me, I wash my hands of you."

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