Katie and Patrick are never allowed outside alone.
They are eight and five now, old enough to play in their yard without their mother always watching. A high fence surrounds the family's corner lot; they cannot escape. That, however, is not what worries my friend Terri. She lives in fear--absolute, heart-stopping fear--that if she leaves her children unsupervised, so much as lets them out of her sight, they will disappear.
They will be snatched--not by a mysterious stranger, but by the very agency charged with protecting Colorado's children.
It has happened before.
Four years ago (Terri can tell you down to the minute when this saga began), then-four-year-old Katie was taken from her preschool to an emergency shelter run by the Denver Department of Social Services. Her mother received a call from the police at four o'clock that afternoon, a Friday, telling her that Katie was in custody and giving her a number to call the following Monday for more information. For almost three days Terri and her husband, Phil, had no idea what had happened to Katie, no clue as to the whereabouts of their precious, precocious daughter, who had never even spent a night away from her parents. They called everyone they could think of (including Denver's then-city attorney, a connection that earned them the far-from-accurate label of "rich" in their file), and clung to each other and their infant son. On Monday they finally learned that Social Services suspected Phil of having abused his daughter, of having touched her "looly," her vagina. The strange source of this charge was Terri herself, who had called Katie's preschool--where she had worked only months before--on the preceding Friday to tell a teacher she thought the kids might be playing physical games, since Katie had just listed a whole host of people who had touched her looly, including a frog, gypsies and her father.
Late on Tuesday Terri was able to take her daughter home--but only after Phil moved out and agreed to have no contact with his daughter. For Phil, who proclaimed his innocence then and reasserts it today with an indignant resignation, there was never any choice. He would have done anything for his beloved daughter--a willingness that Social Services twisted into his readiness to do anything to her. Even Terri's fierce protectiveness of her family was suspect. She had fought her way through a difficult childhood (her mother died of breast cancer when Terri was five; her father was an alcoholic) and survived incest herself; in the eyes of Social Services, this was the classic profile of a woman who would marry a child abuser.
I learned the inner non-workings of this peculiar system from the inside out, when I moved in with Terri to help with the kids. I watched as a social worker outlined the various paths their case could take--all of which ended with Phil in jail. I watched as the bills from lawyers and therapists--a cottage industry of abuse experts who were all part of the system--piled high. I watched as a little girl who'd been unafraid of anything but bugs and dogs withdrew from a world of strangers who poked and prodded her body and mind. I watched as Phil was charged with abusing his daughter. And I finally wrote about the situation when those charges were dropped--eleven months after Phil had left his home. But the story never really has ended. Last Tuesday the Senate Democrats' office called to say that Senator Bob Martinez would be introducing a bill the next day to create a child welfare ombudsman; he planned to distribute copies of my original article, "Kids Say the Darndest Things." Since I wrote that story, my files have filled with horror stories from people complaining about Social Services--parents who say their children have been taken away without cause, grandparents who worry that their grandkids are being molested in foster care when they could be home with them. Like most legislators, Martinez has received frantic calls about Social Services from his constituents; one came from a man he knew who was caught in the cross-fire of a custody dispute. "I had a personal friend, a grandfather, who went through the entire process and was found innocent," says the Commerce City Democrat. "Meanwhile, his entire family was shattered."
Martinez is aware that his proposal needs fine-tuning. "The bureaucracy is so far-reaching," he says. "I'm finding out that if you touch one button, it affects a hundred other offices." With a minimal budget, he's trying to do all things for all people--protect the children, defend the falsely accused--when a more realistic start might be to simply establish a clearinghouse. A place where Terri and Phil could have gone that first afternoon and made arrangements for a safe--and familiar--place for Katie to stay until the situation was cleared up. They understand why the allegations had to be investigated; they'll never understand why their daughter had to suffer in the process. "The process occurs so quickly that people don't have a chance to react," Martinez says. "Once that kid's gone for a few weeks, a few months, it does irreparable damage."
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Phil and Terri both testified before the committee considering Martinez's bill. "It felt really good to try to have some impact on the system after all this time," Phil says. Even though the charges against him were dropped, his name appears on the state's official list of suspected child abusers.
Against all odds, Phil's and Terri's marriage is stronger now than it was before their nightmare began. Month by month they pay down the $50,000 accumulated in legal and therapists' fees. Their children are in school and happy. "Still," Phil says, "not a day goes by that I don't wonder what impact this had on Katie."
Terri knows. Her daughter's imagination had been magical; every day she embarked on a new flight of fancy.
Katie doesn't tell stories any more.