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Child/family investigator measure moves ahead amid tales of greed trumping kids' best interest

The e-mails contained an ugly ultimatum: Annette Story had to fork over $1,500 or lose contact with her son.

Kidnapping? Extortion? No, just another child/family investigator (CFI) demanding an increase in his retainer. Under current Colorado law, Story had no recourse against such an outrageous threat, but a new bill seeks to change that.

Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Denver Democrat Linda Newell, is a package of reforms stemming from the sunset review of how the state regulates mental health professionals. But one little-known amendment, which Newell added in response to concerns from dozens of parents who describe themselves as CFI "victims," would subject CFIs who also happen to be therapists or psychologists to the same disciplinary measures as others in their field.

A CFI is a court-appointed expert who's supposed to help judges make custody decisions in particularly contentious divorce cases. Some CFIs are attorneys and are already subject to the attorney grievance process for any alleged ethical violations. But the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies has consistently rejected complaints about mental-health CFIs overstepping their bounds because DORA doesn't have jurisdiction over court proceedings.

Critics of the process say the CFIs don't have any real oversight at all -- even though judges rely on them to make critical decisions about which parent gets more access to the children. At a Wednesday committee hearing on the bill, Newell and other senators heard about CFIs who worked essentially as "hired guns" for certain divorce attorneys rather than as impartial evaluators, even "friending" those attorneys on their Facebook page; CFIs who ignored police reports and frightened kids' accounts and recommended that custody be awarded to chronic child abusers; and, of course, CFIs who seemed more interested in money than the best interests of the children they were evaluating.

"This man threatened to take my child away and hand him over to a known abuser if I didn't pay him another retainer," Story told the committee. "It's a shame my son had to suffer from the time he was nine until he was fifteen because the Colorado courts just take the word of a CFI."

Sue Papke testified about her daughter's battle against an ex (and his allied CFI) that consumed $300,000 over a dozen years. The CFI ignored four years of domestic violence charges, she said, and distorted the record in his official report. "This is the story of everyone in this room," she said. "If you take away their immunity, these people will have to be responsible for their actions, like other professionals."

Attorneys who specialize in family law have acknowledged to Westword that certain CFIs are known to have a bias going into a case. One might be known for being "pro-father," for instance, or inclined to favor the side that recommended that he or she be hired. An attorney CFI showing such favoritism, if it could be proved, would probably face disciplinary action from the Office of Attorney Regulation; but there's no mechanism for seeking redress from a bad therapist CFI.

"There's a double standard," testified Amy Miller, public policy director at the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "This amendment would fix that problem."

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Officials at DORA testified against the measure, calling misconduct by CFIs an issue that "should be handled by the courts." But the senators moved the bill forward with the amendment intact.

Janice Whittaker, who founded a group called Parents United for Change after losing her son as the result of a CFI's report six years ago, was cautiously optimistic that the provision will survive further review as it inches through the legislative process.

"I think having the parents there to tell their stories helped change some votes," she said.

More from our News archive: "Jacob Christenson, age 11, facing arson trial in Parker over fire that 'just happened.'"

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