Tug of War

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

A group quickly gathered to see what was going on, and Dan called the police and then Darla. By the time she got there — driving like a maniac with horn blaring and yellow lights flashing — the police had arrived. Tony showed them a court order from Jefferson County authorizing him to take the boys to Arizona for the summer. Dan told the police that was impossible; Tony was only allowed supervised visits. With Darla there to keep Tony from leaving with the kids, Dan ran home to get the order from Denver Juvenile Court.

But the police had already decided they weren't going to let Tony leave with his kids whether his court order was legitimate or not. Something about the scene didn't sit right with them. Tony had showed up unexpectedly to take them for a whole summer without letting them pack a bag or say goodbye to their mom. Did he know if they were on any medications or had any health issues? Sergeant Dave Williams took the boys aside and asked them who they wanted to go with. Their mom, they responded.

Darla thought she'd been vindicated — until she showed police the juvenile court papers.

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.

"These are temporary orders," the officer told her.

"No, they're not."

"Yes, they are."

Dan and Darla left the playground with their kids and, after driving in circles to make sure Tony wasn't following, went to the Jefferson County courthouse. There they learned that Tony had been filing motions to modify the custody arrangement for the past year — motions that were all sent to an old address. Darla assumed the court had made a mistake. It couldn't override what Denver's Juvenile Court had decided. As she got on the phone calling every contact she'd ever had from social services, Darla soon realized how horribly she'd misunderstood what had happened when the case closed back in 2005.

There had been no permanent custody decision made by the judge. The case hadn't gone that far. Instead of a trial to determine the fate of the kids, everyone had settled on a temporary agreement — an informal adjustment. Darla, Dan and Tony had agreed to what was essentially a six-month treatment plan during which Darla had full custody, Tony had supervised visits and the boys continued therapy. At the end of the six months, the Denver case was dismissed and jurisdiction went back to Jefferson County, since that's where the original custody arrangements had been made.

The parties in Denver had stipulated that supervised visits would "continue until further order of the Jefferson County District Court following the investigation and recommendations of the court appointed Special Advocate."

But there was no special advocate in the Jefferson County domestic-relations case. The judge had appointed an SA — an attorney or mental-health professional who works as an investigative arm of the court, making recommendations in the best interest of the children — back in 2005 when the sex-abuse allegations were first brought up. But in domestic-relations cases, children get an advocate only when the parents are willing and able to pay for it — and Darla hadn't been able to afford the SA, so she hadn't retained his services. Plus, the issue had become moot when the Denver Juvenile Court case opened — an open dependency-and-neglect investigation trumps domestic-relations court, no matter the jurisdiction — so the advocate decided his services weren't needed and didn't pursue the matter. When jurisdiction was brought back to Jefferson County after the Denver case was closed, a new SA was never appointed.

Thus, when Tony started filing motions to modify the custody arrangement — requesting long, unsupervised visits in Arizona — no one investigated what might be best for the children or even talked to them. And Darla's side of the story was never presented because she was unaware of the filings. The court heard only Tony's point of view and gave him everything he requested.

Tony says he showed up on the playground on the boys' last day of school not to steal them away before Darla knew what hit her, but simply because it was a neutral, public ground. He knew she'd refuse to let him take the kids if he went to their door. He assumed that when the boys disappeared from school that day, Darla would already have the court order and know they were with him.

But when Denver police refused to enforce his order, Tony went to the station to file a complaint against Sergeant Dave Williams. "I was upset because I had court papers that were very clear, and he still didn't want to give me the kids," he says. "It seemed he right away wanted to help Darla as much as he could. In front of all the police officers, he made a rude comment about patches on my backpack."

Tony had "military" and "patriotic" badges on his bag, including one for the NRA, which prompted one of the officers to ask him if he was carrying weapons or a bomb. Tony was offended. He does have a license to carry concealed weapons, but he says he knows better than to bring them into a school zone.

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