Neglected Abuse Warnings Led To Twelve Deaths In El Paso County, Colorado by David Olinger

© 2005 by David Olinger, Denver Post

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use


 

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Index

Introduction

In Colorado, tragic mistakes in child abuse cases can remain hidden for years.

Confidentiality shields errors

Also in state reports:

El Paso County officials said confidentiality laws prevent them from discussing their actions.

A decade-long history of abuse


 

Introduction

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January 19, 2004 — Police detective Victor LaBrecque found 9-year-old Michelle Moore slumped over her clarinet, beside the music she was practicing when she died.

The body of her little brother Charlie, 6, lay nearby in the living room. Their mother was sprawled facedown in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. All three had been shot twice by the children's stepfather, Christopher Colvin, who then reclined beside Michelle and fired a .45-caliber bullet into his right temple as police arrived.

"You don't forget those faces," said LaBrecque, who led the investigation of the city of Fountain's deadliest shooting. "It's something that's always burned into your brain. The innocents — they never had a chance."

The official story always has been that the child protection system could not have prevented this tragedy. Five days after the December 1996 killings, El Paso County human services director Barbara Drake was quoted as saying her department had no active file on the Colvin children until it responded to a child abuse complaint one week before they were killed.

A state fatality review quietly delivered to El Paso officials nine months later tells a much different story of the county's involvement.

There had been a series of reports to El Paso human services about Colvin, including one from a therapist saying that Charlie said his stepfather made him lick up his own urine and shoved a dirty diaper in his face. There had been about 16 police visits to the Colvins' mobile home for domestic violence — and no documented referrals from police to El Paso human services.

Drake declined to discuss the case with The Denver Post but said she never intended to mislead anyone about her department's prior involvement with the Colvins.

"I certainly would have said what I would have believed to be the truth at the time," she said.


 

In Colorado, tragic mistakes in child abuse cases can remain hidden for years.

Top

From 1995 to 2002, 12 children died in El Paso County alone, despite repeated warnings that they or their siblings were in peril, according to state records obtained by The Post through a public-records request.

The Colvin case reveals another critical error besides the dismissed child-abuse complaints. An El Paso child protection worker who decided Michelle was making up stories of abuse by her stepfather lacked important information about Colvin's past in Fort Collins.

Colvin had served five years in prison for beating another stepson so badly that his brain was damaged and he was paralyzed for the rest of his abbreviated life. Yet Colvin's Larimer County crime never was recorded in a statewide child abuse registry.

"This particular case is a prime tragic example of a lack of coordination within the community," the state report says, and of the county's failure "to conduct a thorough investigation into the family."

Confidentiality shields errors

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El Paso and other counties responsible for child abuse investigations keep all records of their involvement in fatal cases confidential after a child's death.

But the state may issue a fatality report that examines a suspected death from child abuse with an eye toward correcting mistakes by county-run agencies. Such reports detail errors in El Paso — and other counties — struggling to cope with growing child abuse case loads.

In one fatal case, El Paso human services waited 10 days to check a nurse's report of bruises on a 1-year-old boy. In another, the county had received 14 reports in less than three years concerning the mother of a 9-month-old girl.

The 1-year-old boy was Isaiah Oliva.

He drowned in a bathtub, eight days after a hospital sent him home with a fractured skull. That was preceded by a long series of other injuries, some of them reported to the county by a doctor, a therapist and others: His teeth were falling out; he was limping from hip pain; his face, buttocks, ear, arm and thigh were bruised; he had broken blood vessels in his eyes; and he had a broken ankle.

Ashlee Wedor drowned when she was 9-months old in October 1996, after El Paso County was called repeatedly about children in her mother's care. The calls ranged from custody disputes to "reports of neglect, drug use and supervisory issues."

The state concluded the county missed "critical opportunities to intervene," including a child neglect accusation two months before Ashlee died that was not investigated partly because the supervisor lacked the file.

"Reportedly, the file remained at the caseworker's home for a period of 10 months," a state report said. "The record was finally returned to the county department after the child's death."

Also in state reports:

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In February 2002, Pablo Santiago was showing his children how to use a handgun when he shot his 13-year-old son, Jeremiah, in the head. Before the fatal accident, El Paso County fielded five reports of suspected child abuse or neglect concerning the Santiago family. "There were significant risk factors in this case that were not identified and addressed."

In June 2000, Robert Dunn killed his 7-year-old daughter, Aaren. After slitting her throat from ear to ear, he told police that she was possessed and he had killed the devil. El Paso County had received five previous child abuse accusations concerning Dunn. The last, a month before Aaren died, documented marks on one of her sisters and found they "were not consistent with the explanations given." Yet El Paso County "determined that no abusive or neglect incident had occurred," the state report said.

In April 1998, 5-month-old Selina Alvarado died of head injuries. El Paso human services had been warned about risks to Selina since the day after she was born. Despite a family history of domestic violence and the parents' noncompliance with therapists, "there appears to have been no clear assessment of whether a (custody) petition should have been filed."

Nobody has been convicted of killing Selina, but her father pled guilty to causing "serious bodily injuries" to her and was sentenced to probation.

El Paso County officials said confidentiality laws prevent them from discussing their actions.

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But "I don't recall there was anything in any of these cases that would have led me to strongly sanction anyone," said Lloyd Malone, the county's child welfare administrator.

"It is a tough job," he said, to divine which child abuse case may take a fatal turn. "People are people. They're not perfectly predictable, but we do our best."

A decade-long history of abuse

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Five days before the Colvin murders, the state fatality report says, county social workers opened a case on the family after Charlie told a school counselor his stepdad had kicked him in the head and spanked him with a ruler after stuffing a dirty sock in his mouth.

Colvin was jailed for a day for failing to comply with court orders from a previous charge of assaulting his wife. A judge barred Colvin from his family's mobile home in Fountain.

At the news conference after the killings, then-acting human services director Drake answered a question many were asking: Why didn't her agency do more?

"The only 'more' is to remove children from their mother, who had never perpetrated any abuse and who felt in many ways she could protect them," she told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Drake also said there was no active case until the previous week. The agency did get one call in September 1994 alleging a risk of child abuse in the household, she said, but she didn't know who called, and the allegation could not be substantiated.

But the state fatality report, delivered to El Paso in late September 1997, detailed a series of child abuse calls concerning Colvin.

The report traced Colvin's history of child abuse to the 1985 beating of his stepson in Larimer County. It noted "there was no record" of this abuse in Colorado's central registry, even though it "resulted in permanent and severe harm to the victim who eventually died...from residual complications" of those injuries.

The report also noted six subsequent allegations against Colvin in El Paso County spanning two years:

On November 17, 1992, the county received a call "alleging domestic violence toward Mr. Colvin's second wife Cynthia and mistreatment of (name deleted)."

On January 28, 1994, a report was made of "a round circular burn" on 3-year-old Charlie's face and that Colvin was abusing his third wife, Sandra. "Case not assigned," the state report says.

On April 8, 1994, a day care provider reported "numerous stories of domestic violence toward Sandra" and Charlie saying, "Daddy hit me in the stomach." "Case not assigned," the state report says.

On June 23, 1994, Sandra Colvin's therapist reported this from her client: Christopher Colvin had bruised Charlie, and Charlie had told his mother that his stepfather made him lick up his urine and had shoved his face into a dirty diaper. "Case not assigned," the state report says.

On September 6, 1994, a school counselor reported that Michelle said her stepfather had slapped her, punched Charlie in the eye and legs and had previously broken her mother's wrist.

This case was assigned. But the caseworker concluded Michelle "was making up stories and the family should examine why she was doing this. Case was closed as unsubstantiated," the state report says.

On September 27, 1994, the paternal grandmother of Charlie and Michelle reported that Colvin had been abusive to his wife, hit the children, locked them in their room and called them "bitch" and "bastard." "No documentation to indicate how the allegation was handled," the state report says.

The child abuse calls mentioned in the state report may not be a complete list.

The paternal grandmother, Inge Moore, told The Post she called El Paso County's child abuse line "at least three times" to warn that Charlie and Michelle were in danger.

"They never did anything about it," she said.

She recalled a day when she took Charlie and Michelle swimming and then to Burger King, and how the children reacted when she asked what they wanted to eat. They told her Colvin "locked them in a room for hours, and they could only eat and drink what he let them," she said. "You don't do that to little children."

The state fatality report says it is impossible to determine whether "a different case approach" in 1994 could have prevented the killings two years later. However, it notes that until December 5, 1996, three days before the murders, "no one had taken actual steps to clarify the criminal and social service history" of Colvin.

The fatality team also questioned why, with 16 domestic violence visits to the Colvin home, police never called the county child protection agency. "The failure of law enforcement to notify the county," their report says, "was extremely concerning."

Fountain's new police chief, John Morse, said Colorado does not specify when police must notify child protection agencies about domestic violence incidents witnessed by children, and policies vary among police departments.

He also said his department has become much more aggressive about protecting children in such cases. "I would just die if the same thing happened today," he said.

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter |

| Families And Marriage Book | Abstract | Family site map | Family index |

 

| Chapter 8 — Child "Protective" Services —Who's Minding The Minders? |

| Next — El Paso County, Colorado, Child Protection Services Come Up Short by Debbie Kelley |

| Back — Colorado Ignoring Foster Care Problems by Richard Wexle r |


 

Added February 2, 2006

Last modified 4/11/15