When people hear Kristen Stillman's story -- how her mother left eight-year-old Kristen and her twin brother, Will, at a house where they suffered horrific abuse for a decade, with Kristen giving birth to four children by head of the household/rapist Eric Torrez by the time she was twenty -- they cannot believe it happened in Denver. And then they wonder if the Stillmans are suing Denver.
Short answer: no. Even though the Denver Department of Human Services received numerous tips that something was going terribly wrong in that house, and social workers even called on the family, no action was taken to help Kristen, who finally found the will and means to break free when she learned that her oldest daughter was being abused by her rapist's father. But the department is protected by Colorado's Governmental Immunity Act.
I first told Kristen's story in September 2010, when she was giving up custody to her four children so that they could grow up in real families, an experience she'd never had. At the time, she wasn't looking to sue anyone; all she wanted was for the county to quit billing her for the foster care for those children -- all of whom she loved, all of them the result of rapes that would never have happened if the Denver Department of Human Services had taken care of her and Will when they were kids.
But as the Stillman story spread across the country -- in Glamour, with Anderson Cooper on CNN -- lawyers who wanted to help the twins looked into whether it was possible to sue the Denver Department of Human Services, despite the strict law that gives state agencies immunity.
Jaycee Dugard got $21 million from California, but it's unlikely that Kristen and Will Stillman will ever see a dime from this state. Attorney John Sciopione signed on to help Kristen, looking for loopholes but not finding any. The best route, he says, would be for legislators to take up this cause and pass a law that would give an exemption to victims in very unusual circumstances -- and hold government agencies accountable when they screw up this badly. And that's all Kristen really wants.
But on Tuesday, a federal judge found another way to let a wrongful-death lawsuit go forward against two employees of the Denver Department of Human Services in the case of Chandler Grafner, the seven-year-old boy who starved to death after his foster parents locked him in a closet. A school worker had warned Human Services of suspected abuse; the employees who investigated decided the tip was unfounded.
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While the agency itself has immunity, U.S. District Judge William Martinez decided that its two employees did not. "Had Defendants properly exercised their professional judgment in response to the April 17, 2007 referral, these injuries may well have been avoided," he said, allowing the lawsuit filed by Chandler's actual mother and father to go forward -- at least against the two employees, whose failure to act "shocked the conscience."
Sadly, this is not the only shocking situation in Colorado. Sciopione is still looking for a lawmaker willing to give Colorado a conscience.
More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Molly Midyette denied a new trial after judge rules she wasn't a battered woman (VIDEO)."