Tug of War

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

"Sometimes an allegation can be accurate, but improvements have been made or treatment is in progress," she adds.

Once the six-month informal adjustment period was up in early 2006, jurisdiction returned to Jefferson County, and the court had the authority to modify the custody arrangement between Tony and Darla. Even if DDHS disagrees with that court's orders regarding custody, it can't intervene without new evidence warranting a new D&N filing. "You can't go and make a referral to the department saying, 'I don't like what the judge decided.' Because if that's what we get — 'I don't like the fact that the judge entered an order that says my husband gets to do whatever' — then I have to refer you back to that domestic-relations court," Booker says. "There would have to be new information; we would not have to be prompted by a new incident. We would also be prompted if new information about a previous incident were to be brought forward."

Darla told DDHS she had new information about her sons' past abuse. Two weeks after Tony showed up on the playground in May, Ethan told her that Tony had put his penis in his butt. Before, Ethan had only disclosed that Tony had touched him with his fingers. Darla used the new information to set up a new forensic interview, but Ethan mumbled indecipherably and nothing came of it. Darla and Dan kept calling caseworkers and the child-abuse hotline, and officials kept telling them there was nothing they could do for them. Darla was told to get a lawyer and go back to Jefferson County District Court.

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.

"We already gave you enough evidence where you shouldn't have a problem getting the boys," she claims she was told.

On June 26, Ethan and Eliot were at home getting ready to go to Elitch Gardens when Denver police walked in the back door.

Darla came out of her bedroom to find an officer in her kitchen. "I guess one of us had been outside and we didn't lock the gate, and I always open the door first thing in the morning to get a cool breeze," Darla says.

The cop explained that he was with the child-abduction unit and asked her to come outside. There were several officers in her back yard, all there to enforce a court order giving her ex-husband a summer-long visit with the boys in Arizona. Ethan and Eliot hadn't seen their dad in a year, and they hadn't been alone with him once in three years. Darla begged the police not to take her kids. She said he was a child molester. An officer told her not to worry. The boys would have their own bedroom, and Tempe social services would be making visits.

"Eliot came outside and I hugged him, and I said go get your brother, and Ethan came outside and I just held him," Darla remembers. Then she told the police they could be the ones to explain to her children where they were going. An officer did, and then asked Ethan if he wanted to go see his father. "No," was his response.

With that, the police said they'd take the kids to the Family Crisis Center first, to let DDHS sort the situation out. But Darla knew it wouldn't matter. She'd already been told there was nothing the agency could do. "As much as I wanted to just grab my kids and run, I'm not an idiot," she says. "I know I'd go to jail, and Tony would get the boys for sure."

So she put on her best fake smile, put the kids into the police car, buckled their seatbelts and told them she loved them and to have fun in Arizona. "For Eliot, a ride in a police car — it was fun to him, and that's okay. I didn't want to tell him any different. But Ethan knew. Ethan just had this look on his face."

Now as she sits, chain-smoking Kamels outside her quiet house, Darla's mind races through all the things she's told Ethan — and all the things she needs to remember to tell him when he calls. "The next time I talk to the boys, I have to remind Ethan, if Eliot goes to the bathroom and needs help, Ethan needs to be the one to help him. And I know I'm asking a lot of him. I'm asking a seven-year-old boy if he can watch his brother and protect him because I can't. When they take showers, I have to remind Ethan, 'Don't take baths. Just have someone turn on the water for you. Stay in your clothes. Wait for them to leave.' I'm going to ask him is there a lock on the bedroom door that you can lock when you go to bed.

"I feel like I'm putting all this pressure on Ethan and all this responsibility, and I remember when my sister and I went to foster care. My mom told me yesterday, 'I put the same responsibility on Dana, and you're going to have to do the same thing with Ethan.'

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