By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"We were all working in our own silos," says Moriarty. "In the community response to children found in drug environments, as the child and the drug user moved through the system, they had contact with all these different disciplines, but no one discipline knew what the others were doing. The messages were conflicting, and it was almost impossible to get through the system successfully."
Moriarty and Wells decided it was time to shatter those silos. That summer, they traveled to Butte County, California, and met with Sue Webber-Brown, a district attorney investigator assigned to the local narcotics unit. "We were finding a lot of kids in these drug homes, and there was no one who was taking care of the children, identifying the victims and charging criminal charges," says Webber-Brown. "That's why we had to come up with our own plan." That plan, introduced in 1993, called for Drug Endangered Children, or DEC, teams: a coalition of police officers, child-welfare workers, medical personnel and prosecutors that together would deal with kids found in drug homes.
Moriarty and Wells brought the model back to Colorado and built on it. That fall, the two helped organize the first meeting of the Colorado Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, or Colorado DEC — with representatives from law enforcement, social services, the legal system and medical facilities across the state — and established a new protocol for children found in drug labs and homes. Police officers and social workers would work together as much as possible — before, during and after drug raids — to document and share evidence of child abuse and neglect and determine the best course of action for the kids and their parents. Medical personnel and child-protective services workers would examine the children as soon as possible after they were found. And prosecutors would use all of the information collected to prepare and coordinate child-endangerment and criminal charges.
"We were rocking and rolling," says Moriarty. "What we didn't realize was that it was a marathon, not a sprint to the finish line."
Vince and Miranda's three children were gone. They'd been taken away by social services the night of the bust — and the parents had one chance to get them back.
Chris Melonakis, 17th Judicial District Court judge and presiding judge of the Adams County Juvenile Court, made that clear to the couple when they walked into his courtroom a few weeks after the raid. The kids had been taken to Miranda's parents' house, and that's where they were going to stay unless Vince and Miranda followed every one of his stipulations, including months of drug treatments, life-skills therapy, parenting classes and weekly urine tests. One bad drug screening, one missed class, one report of tardiness, and the kids would most likely never come home. "He said if we wanted our kids, we had to show him through our actions, not words," says Vince, who'd been released after the raid with criminal charges pending. "He wanted us to show 110 percent."
Luckily for Vince, 110 percent was how he lived his life. "I looked at it as do or die," he remembers. "Jumping through the hoops of the courts and social services was nothing compared to having another chance at jumping through the hoops your kids put you through."
For Miranda, the bust had been a wake-up call — not just because her children had watched a SWAT team bust down their door, but also because Lopez had really talked to her about turning her life around. "Officer Lopez treated me like a human being, like a person, not like a monster," she says. "It was a beginning. He gave me hope." Melonakis gave her hope, too. He was only offering one shot at earning her kids back, but that's all she needed: "If I didn't have that chance, I would have given up. The one reason I would have made the change was for my children."
Lopez started getting monthly calls from Vince. He'd tell the detective about the drug classes he and Miranda were taking, where they learned they first had to stay clean for themselves, then stay clean for their children. He'd talk about their parenting classes, in which they were taught practical ways to keep their kids under control. He'd mention their life-skills therapist, Sandy Carole, who seemed really supportive when she supervised them interacting as a family. He'd brag about the months of clean drug tests they'd racked up. To Lopez, Vince sounded like a different person. "It was awesome," he says. "It is very rare in the drug community to have someone take the opportunity to turn themselves around like that. Usually the only time they dry out is in jail. The more he stayed clean, the more excited he was that he was doing it. He wanted someone to be proud of him, so I kept reinforcing that. I was thinking, 'My gosh, this is my chance to help someone along the way.'"
In December 2005, just three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the bust, and after nine months of drug treatment, perfect attendance at sixteen weeks of parent classes and all-clean urine tests, Vince and Miranda returned to Judge Melonakis's courtroom. "You know, the best Christmas present I can give a parent is a guarantee that they need not come back to court and they can be home with their children," the judge told them. "You should be proud of what you have accomplished in this case, and I will gladly dismiss this case."