A Dad, Determined

© 2004 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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Three and a half years ago, Joe Culpepper brought his little girl to Colorado to see her mother.
He's still trying to get her back.

May 6, 2004 (AP) — Culpepper lost his 20-month-old daughter, Meagan, when he was accused of a minor offense and briefly jailed. Now she is 5 years old and lives in a foster home despite a recent appeals-court decision that said Colorado didn't have the right to keep her.

His lawyer calls it a social-services kidnapping. Others say Meagan is with the only family she knows — a loving foster family — and removing her now would traumatize her. Her story cannot have a happy ending for at least some of the adults who love her.

Even now, Weld County "won't let me see her. They're not letting me contact her," Culpepper said. "Never in my life will I quit fighting for my daughter. My daughter is my pride and joy."

Culpepper had temporary custody of Meagan in Texas when he drove to Colorado in 2000 to visit his ex-girlfriend and Meagan's mother, Mystina Turner. The parents clashed, and she resolved to stop him from taking their daughter home.

In 43 minutes, three calls concerning Culpepper were placed to two police departments. One department arrested him for yelling in the nursing home where Turner worked. The other arrested her for falsely accusing him of a crime.

Culpepper was jailed November 28, 2000, and the little girl sitting in his pickup was handed temporarily to a county agency.

When he was freed days later, she was a foster child.

Last month, a Colorado appeals court unanimously ruled that the Weld County Department of Social Services and a county magistrate erroneously took permanent custody of a child who had been in the state two days.

The judges called her home state Texas, not Colorado. They found that Culpepper possessed a Texas custody order when Colorado took his daughter. They restored his parental rights.

Yet in the weeks since, Culpepper has not been allowed to visit or speak to his daughter, let alone take her home.

The appeals-court ruling concerned state jurisdiction and left painful questions unanswered. What happens to Meagan now? Can Colorado give justice to a father without harming a daughter who barely knows him?

On the day she was taken from her father, Meagan wore diapers and drank from a baby bottle. Now she has dance shoes, playmates and a new family.

Since 2001, she has been raised by Jodee and Jody Rupple, Weld County foster parents who expected to adopt her and have petitioned to keep her.

"They want what's best for Meagan," said Mark Rapp, the Rupples' lawyer. "They have been doing what they feel is best for Meagan for the last three years."

Mystina Turner also wants to raise Meagan, although she did not challenge the termination of her parental rights. If she cannot, "I would rather have her stay with the Rupples here in Colorado," she said. "Over my dead body will Joe get her."

Rose Mary Zapor, Culpepper's lead attorney, expects Weld County to appeal and predicts the interstate custody fight will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Already, she said, Culpepper has driven 90,000 miles between Texas and Colorado trying to get his daughter back.

"He is the rarest of all clients — the one who really didn't do anything wrong," Zapor said. "This is kidnapping by social services."

Citing child confidentiality laws, Weld County's social services director declined to comment.

"We've got an obligation pursuant to state statute not to discuss the case," Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker said. "We're not going to violate that obligation."

In court, Weld County argued that it inherited Meagan when both parents were arrested in a domestic violence incident. The county contended Culpepper then accepted its authority to protect Meagan, failed to pursue his Texas custody case and was judged an unfit parent in Colorado.

After the appeals-court decision, the county and Meagan's court-appointed guardian both resisted Culpepper's request for immediate parenting time. Meagan "is a young healthy child" in an adoptive foster home who "has not seen her biological father for approximately two years," guardian Carolyn Olson wrote.

Kathleen Henken, a child psychologist with extensive experience in Colorado child-protection cases, said she is not familiar with the Culpepper case but spoke in general about removing a 5-year-old from the only family she knows. That would be "the equivalent of a child who loses both of her parents at the same time and has to go live with strangers," she said.

"It's not just Mommy and Daddy. It's playmates, it's siblings, children in the neighborhood, the favorite swing set. Everything that is familiar is gone."

Meagan was born March 15, 1999, to an unmarried couple living in a mobile home near Galveston. Joe and Mystina had a stormy relationship, and in September 2000, he gained temporary custody with a Texas restraining order.

He said he did so because Mystina "had always threatened me — she was going to take my daughter, I' d never see her again."

Mystina came alone to Colorado, where her grandmother Wanda Turner gave her a place to live and a job at the nursing home she managed.

That November, against the advice of relatives, Joe brought Meagan north to spend Thanksgiving with her mother in Firestone. The visit quickly erupted into a conflict that put both parents in jail.

As Culpepper tried to leave with Meagan, Mystina Turner and her grandmother called Firestone police to stop him. They arrested Mystina instead for slashing Culpepper's tires and falsely accusing him of stealing $600 from her. She admitted to criminal mischief and was sentenced to probation.

But in nearby Louisville, police arrested Culpepper for disorderly conduct at the nursing home Wanda Turner managed. His reported crime: yelling in the hallways for Mystina.

Culpepper said he did go to the nursing home to find her and say goodbye, but he denied causing a disturbance.

His arrest left Louisville police with a dilemma: Meagan.

Her father was in jail. Her mother couldn't have her because the father had custody. The arresting officer called a child-protection worker, who decided Weld County should take Meagan because she was "temporarily staying" in Firestone.

In a Colorado courtroom, Culpepper later testified that he told a Weld County caseworker about the Texas restraining order when he was released from jail.

"Do you remember what she said?" he was asked.

"Yes," he replied. "This ain't Texas, this is Colorado. We do things a little different around here."

With Culpepper's consent, The Denver Post reviewed court and case records generated by his long quest to regain his daughter.

On January 12, 2001, barely a month after taking Meagan from a father with a restraining order, Weld County gave Meagan to her mother. Two months later, the county took her back to a foster home.

At the time, Mystina Turner said, she was suffering from untreated depression, the trauma of separation from Meagan's father and the parenting demands imposed by a county caseworker.

"I couldn't take the mental duress they were putting me in," she said.

When the caseworker called to say Meagan would be returned to state custody, "I just started crying," she said. "I told my daughter that I loved her, and I dropped her off at a day-care center."

Culpepper, meanwhile, tried to meet similar demands by completing a parenting program and passing a drug-and-alcohol evaluation in Texas. Sometimes he drove 1,200 miles north to Greeley to spend 45 minutes with Meagan while a caseworker watched them interact.

"It was rough, but I cherished it," he said.

"It was real hard to sit there and play with my daughter while someone watched on the other side of the mirror. They treated me like I was some type of molester or murderer."

Once he tried moving to Colorado "without a house, without a job, nothing." He found a car-repair job near Interstate 25 and "lived in my truck across the freeway at a truck stop" but returned home alone in frustration.

By then, Weld County social services had found a stable home for Meagan in a Greeley suburb. A therapist described Meagan as thriving in the Rupples' care. Joe and Mystina agree the Rupples have been good foster parents, who sometimes sent pictures of their smiling, growing girl.

But eventually, he said, they no longer let him call his daughter. On her fourth birthday, "I had to sing happy birthday to her on the answering machine. I wanted her to know I still loved her."

In 2002, the county that initially took Meagan on an emergency basis terminated the rights of her biological parents. Culpepper appealed. Slowly the case proceeded from courtroom to courtroom. Birthdays passed.

This year, a Weld County attorney argued that Culpepper abandoned his Texas custody case before his arrest and Colorado appropriately kept Meagan.

The appeals court disagreed.

The judges concluded the Texas restraining order remained in effect and constituted a "custody determination" concerning Meagan.

"This error was clearly not harmless," they wrote, because it denied the father "the opportunity to litigate custody issues in the child's home state of Texas. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment terminating father's parental rights."

But "given the length of time that the child has now resided in Colorado," they permitted a Weld County court to issue temporary orders "as are necessary for the welfare of the child."

Mystina Turner now has a 6-month-old daughter named Hanna. Fearing Weld County would take this baby as well, she has moved to a small apartment in Boulder.

She said she thinks of Meagan every day and still hopes to become her mother again but knows Meagan is in a good home.

"I'm with my new family," Meagan explained during their last phone conversation.

"I love you," she told Meagan.

"I love you too, Mommy," Meagan replied.

Joe Culpepper said he knows it would be traumatic for Meagan to move to Texas with her long-lost father, and he would welcome the Rupples to visit.

"That's one of the things that really bothers me right now. I know that it's going to hurt Meagan," he said. But "it wasn't right that she's there to begin with. Unfortunately, I have to take her from them. She is my daughter."

Click here for additional details on this case and the antics of Meagan's lunachic mother.
At last report Meagan was back in Texas with her father but Joe still wasn't clear of his nightmare in court as he was now involved with Texas child protective services.



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

| Next — Garfield County, Colorado, SWAT Team Invades Home, Takes 11-Year-Old At Gunpoint On Insane Order Of Magistrate Lain Leoniak |

| Back — Illinois DCFS Lethal Lapses: 51 Botched Cases, 53 Children Dead by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer |


Added February 2, 2006

Last modified 4/11/15