Tug of War

Two counties, feuding parents, a sex-abuse allegation and one quagmire of a custody battle.

Dan didn't want to take things slow. A few weeks later, he took Darla to meet his daughters. He told her he didn't want to date anybody else. He only wanted to be with her. "Everything happened so fast," she says. "My boys loved him. I loved his girls." By December, months before Darla and Tony's divorce would be final, in March 2004, she and Dan were living together. Sixteen months later, they were married.

During that time, Tony and Darla were civil, splitting their time with the boys according to their different work schedules. But it still hurt Tony that she was already sleeping with someone else. "She could have waited till we were divorced," he says. "I really lost respect for her." He tried to confront her and Dan at Wal-Mart, prompting Darla to get a restraining order. Still, the couple managed to agree to a custody arrangement in March that was basically an even split.

Later that month, Darla's sisters were babysitting the boys, and when Darla and Dan went to pick them up, her sister Dana asked Darla to come inside; there was something she wanted to talk to her about. Dana said Ethan had told her and their other sister Angela that someone had been hurting him and touching him. They'd asked him who, and he'd said "Daddy Tony." Ethan had said Tony would "touch his penis, make it grow, then it would get little again."

Darla Carrigan waits in her boys' empty room.
Mark Manger
Darla Carrigan waits in her boys' empty room.
Eliot's life went badly off the tracks.
Mark Manger
Eliot's life went badly off the tracks.

"I just lost it," Darla says.

She got the kids in the van to leave, but was hysterical while they drove away. On the way home, they stopped to see Dan's ex-wife, Charee — with whom they are close — and figure out what to do. Charee helped calm Ethan, who was also very upset, and suggested that the boys stay with her while Darla and Dan planned their next move. They agreed, and when they arrived at their home in Denver, they decided to call the police in Lakewood — since that's where Tony was living — and ask for help.

Lakewood detective Michael Schmidt began an investigation two days later. He had Darla confront Tony on the phone as he listened in, but nothing came of the interrogation. Tony just repeated that he didn't know why Ethan would say something like that, and he couldn't believe Darla was accusing him. According to the transcript, she ended the conversation by telling him she was going to the police, and she wasn't going to let him see the boys until she "got to the bottom of this."

"That's fine..." he said. "I know you're just trying to take care of Ethan.... I know that, I understand that."

The Lakewood police referred Ethan to the Jeffco Children's Alliance for a forensic interview. He was interviewed there three times in early April 2004, but he wouldn't talk to anyone about what he'd told his aunts. He wouldn't even talk to his mother. Concerned, Darla told the investigator that her sister Angela was bipolar and sometimes made up stories. The case was left open pending any leads.

"I thought maybe it didn't happen," Darla says. "Ethan isn't talking. If this was happening, wouldn't he talk to someone?" So after keeping Tony and the boys apart during the investigation, she agreed to let him see the children for the Fourth of July. And when nothing more came of the accusations, she felt comfortable returning to their old shared-custody arrangement. It wasn't until after Tony returned with Ethan and Eliot, having had them home in Arizona over the Christmas holiday, that Darla realized something was still wrong. The kids seemed stressed out. When she took them to the grocery store, they were terrible, acting whiny and upset. Darla asked Ethan what had happened in Arizona.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Did somebody touch you?"

He just looked at her.

"Did your Tata touch you?"

"No."

"Who touched you?"

"Tony," he said in a whisper.

Back at the house, she had Ethan in the bathtub while she tried to change Eliot's diaper. She'd been potty-training him, but he refused to sit on his seat. He was screaming and kicking and throwing a fit.

"Why won't you go on the potty, Eliot? What happened? Did someone hurt you?"

"Yes."

"Who? What happened?"

"Tony touched my butt."

She asked Ethan again what had happened.

"Tony put his fingers in my butt."


The next morning, Darla called the Lakewood police. "I just called the only people I knew, and I said we've got to do something now," she says. They agreed, and another forensic interview was set up at the Jeffco Children's Alliance — this time for both children. In the meantime, Detective Schmidt made a referral to the Denver Department of Human Services because the boys lived in Denver.

DDHS caseworker Jennifer Scott called Darla and advised her to keep the boys away from their father until the forensic interviews were completed. Darla called Tony and told him Ethan was sick — knowing he wouldn't mind waiting until both boys were well to take them again. "I was trying to buy time," she explains.

But when the interview came on January 24, 2005, Ethan would not talk, and Eliot was deemed too young. Two days later, Scott consulted with a DDHS attorney about the department's options with regard to stopping visitation between the father and the boys. They concluded that they did not have any evidence to warrant a dependency-and-neglect filing against the father, nor did they have any other options as a department. Scott advised Darla to revisit her divorce case and try to change visitation or get full custody. DDHS also referred the boys to the Denver Children's Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that specializes in child sex abuse and provides free therapy to children whose parents cannot afford to pay.

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