Tug of War

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

The boys began weekly therapy at DCAC in March, and during their session on April 27, Ethan told Suvi Miller that Tony had touched him in a way he didn't like. Ethan told her Tony had touched him inside his butt with his pants off. "He walked out of that room and he said, 'Mommy, I was brave and I told her what happened,'" Darla recalls. "I had told Ethan just to pray to God and always tell the truth." Ethan told his mom he had prayed not to be afraid so he could talk and tell the truth. "I was in tears," Darla says. "I thought, 'Okay, my children are going to be safe now.'"

As required by law, Miller contacted the Denver Department of Human Services about Ethan's disclosure, but she recommended that a forensic interview be "temporarily delayed to provide Ethan with an opportunity to gain further trust in the therapeutic process."

Darla went to the Jefferson County courthouse with a letter from the therapist — one that outlined the situation and recommended that the boys' visits with their father be temporarily suspended — and filled out a "motion to modify parenting time" template, adding the word "emergency" to the title. The document asked that Tony's visitation be suspended and stated that Ethan had disclosed sexual abuse to his therapist.

On June 7, Jefferson County District Court Magistrate James Anderson responded by limiting Tony's parenting time but still allowing him to visit the children unsupervised on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. beginning on June 9. Darla was furious, and she let the judge know it. "You know, judge," she told him, "my kids were in here with me the other day. I know you saw them. My older son wanted to know who you were. I told him you're the judge. You're the one that's going to protect him. He asked me why you weren't doing your job."

As she left the courthouse, Darla called the boys' therapist and DDHS to tell them about the judge's order. They decided to schedule a forensic interview with the Denver Children's Advocacy Center the next day. Despite the urgency, forensic interviewers are specially trained to never ask leading questions or put words in a child's mouth. "Our job is to conduct the best fact-finding interview that we can conduct, because whatever a child says or doesn't say is a very important piece of evidence down the road if a case continues and moves into the criminal-justice system," says DCAC executive director Gizane Indart. "Our job is to elicit information from the child in a non-contaminated way."

This time, Ethan talked to interviewer Karen Blackwell. He explained that he'd already told "Miss Suvi" about what his dad, "Tony," "did to him." He said that his dad "did something bad to me. He stuck his finger up my butt." He said his dad "played with his goober." On a body drawing, he pointed out a penis as a "goober."

Immediately following the June 8, 2005, interview, DDHS caseworker Jodi Byrnes contacted on-call Denver Juvenile Court Magistrate Bernie Messer, who granted DDHS temporary custody of the children and ordered the department to file a dependency-and-neglect petition. They explained to Darla that the department had to file a D&N petition against both parents, and that the boys would go into 48-hour emergency foster care. She agreed, and her sister took the boys.

Two days later, she, Dan and Tony sat down with DDHS officials for what is known as a Team Decision Making meeting. Darla said she was concerned that Tony was sexually abusing the kids; he said Darla had a drinking and drug problem. DDHS required that Darla take a drug test, and when she passed, they allowed her to take the boys home and suspended Tony's visitation rights while Lakewood police continued to investigate the sex-abuse allegations. In August, Tony voluntarily took a polygraph test that found him to be telling the truth when he said he had never had sexual contact with his children or touched them sexually.

Lakewood police never presented the case to the district attorney; the investigation is still open pending any further leads.

In September, all parties signed an agreement in Denver Juvenile Court giving Darla full legal custody and Tony supervised visits. The case was closed, and a caseworker handed her a copy of a letter from DDHS to Tony, dated September 1, 2005, stating that an allegation of sexual abuse "has been confirmed" and that he had been "identified as the person responsible."

Darla thought everything was over. "I felt safe," she says. "I felt I didn't have anything to worry about."

"Our burden of proof is nothing like you have if there are criminal charges filed," says Margaret Booker, intake administrator for DDHS Family and Children Services. "If we have corroborating information that suggests something happened, we can found that allegation. When we found an allegation of abuse or neglect, within 24 hours we send a letter to the individual we have named to be the perpetrator of abuse or neglect. We have to give you formal notice that you have been founded, because you, as the alleged perpetrator, have a right to appeal our finding. In years past, the state had a central registry in which individuals founded for abuse or neglect were added. There is no registry anymore."

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