More than 180 kids are born in Colorado every day, and as many as one in four will be abused or neglected by their caregivers during their early years. Why is it so difficult to stop this from happening—and even harder to find justice for victims?
Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng; photography by Ehren Joseph
When 67-year-old Wayne Sperling appeared in a Denver courtroom for sentencing on December 30, 2014, his long, snow white beard and button nose made him look like a real-life incarnation of Kris Kringle. But he more accurately resembled a sinister character from Oliver Twist. Sperling faced 10 felony charges related to child abuse but pleaded guilty to just one, a Class 5 felony that carried a sentence of up to eight years in prison. He’d already lost custody of his children. Now the judge would determine what justice would be in a case that had horrified the Denver community.
It wasn’t the first time Sperling had appeared in court; it wasn’t even the first time he’d lost custody of his kids. In 2006, two of his children—four and two years old—were found playing without supervision on East 18th Avenue, the one-way, multilane road that shuttles more than 14,600 vehicles a day between City Park and downtown. The call prompted a child welfare assessment of his family. Sperling and the children’s mother, Lorinda Bailey (then in her late 20s), received probation, were advised to attend parenting classes, and retained custody of their three kids, including a three-month-old baby. By 2008, as the couple’s problems persisted, child welfare officials had moved all three of the children into foster care.
Sperling and Bailey retained custody of a fourth child who had been born in 2007, and they subsequently had three more sons. Denver Department of Human Services (DDHS) received more reports about the couple in 2011, 2012, and 2013 that expressed concerns about the family. DDHS assessed just one of those referrals, in which someone reported seeing unsupervised children on a window ledge about eight feet off the ground. When Bailey took her youngest son—who was two years old—to nearby Saint Joseph’s Hospital on September 29, 2013, there were no open cases on the family.
Bailey said the child fell off the toilet and hit the left side of his head. While stitching up the cut, the emergency room doctor noticed bruising and swelling on the boy’s right ear. Bailey claimed one of the boy’s brothers had thrown a toy at him, but the doctor thought it looked more like he’d been pinched, which initiated a series of events fairly typical in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, starting with a home visit by a DDHS caseworker and some cops.
When the door of the Uptown apartment opened, a smell so foul wafted out that the visitors lurched back. Inside, the odor was worse. The floor was covered with a thick layer of feces, pools of urine, and maggots. Amid the filth was a thin pathway to the bedroom, where it appeared that all the children slept on mattresses on the floor and in a crib. One mattress had moldy stains, flies were everywhere, and about a half-dozen cats wandered around. Sperling told the visitors he tried to keep the place clean but having four boys between the ages of two and six made it difficult, which was why the apartment wasn’t “spotless.”
Even more troubling was the boys’ health. The officials removed the children for examination, and the resulting reports described them as “feral,” malnourished, and suffering from what was later determined to be lead toxicity. The boys needed substantial medical attention. Despite their age differences, some of the boys were roughly the same size, a possible indicator of developmental delays. None of them were potty trained; even the six-year-old wore a diaper. Although their list of ailments went on, one of the most shocking revelations was that the boys didn’t appear to know how to talk, communicating instead with grunts and gestures.
The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) prepared a 19-page report of the incident that called the case “egregious.” CDHS routinely investigates child fatalities, but after a series of deaths in 2012 heightened urgency among state legislators to reform—or at least improve—Colorado’s child welfare programs, CDHS also began addressing “near fatalit[ies]” and “egregious incidents.” The adjusted approach is designed to catch system failures before children die at the hands of caretakers, and it also reveals how child abuse often occurs behind closed doors—or, in Sperling and Bailey’s home, how it continued.
Bailey ultimately pleaded guilty to two Class 5 felonies and received 90 days in jail. Judge J. Eric Elliff sentenced Sperling to five years, meaning that at his mandatory release date, his youngest child will be seven years old. (Sperling may not serve that full term; he became eligible for parole this fall.) At the sentencing in 2014, before Sperling left the court, Elliff said, “You’ve got to treat your children with dignity and respect. They’re not pets. They are not possessions. They are human beings that need to be carefully nurtured.”
If you think spotting child abuse or neglect should be easy, consider this hypothetical: After a long day at work, you come home and notice your neighbor’s eight-year-old sitting under a tree, crying. You’re friendly with the kid; he likes to help you drag the trash to the curb each week, and you stop to chat. You notice his cheeks are puffy, presumably from crying. His shirt is dirty and torn at the collar, and it looks like he hasn’t bathed. A gash on his arm is bleeding, and another bruise, turning green and yellow at the edges, looks a bit older. Is this child abuse—or just a kid who fell while climbing a tree?
Or let’s say you and your five-year-old daughter attend her friend’s birthday party. The parents settle in with a round of beers while the kids bound upstairs to play. You give your daughter your phone to take pictures of her friends. Later, you realize that one of the photos taken at the party is of a girl’s naked torso. When you ask your daughter about it, she says, “Hannah always takes off her clothes for pictures.”
Which scenario indicates abuse? The answer is neither, or both. That ambiguity—where privacy, parenting, and the public interest in children’s well-being intersect—is under continual debate. Although the federal government has established basic guidelines for identifying child abuse and neglect to determine prevention funding amounts, the responsibility for defining child abuse falls on each state. About 702,000 kids are abused in the United States each year. Based on anonymous, self-reported behavior, six percent of parents in Colorado engage in child abuse that could legally qualify as criminal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that public expenditures for child maltreatment are about $210,000 per abused or neglected child. Prevent Child Abuse America, a national advocacy group, estimates that child abuse and neglect can result in investigations, medical treatment, foster care, and more that could cost the United States around $200 million per day.
Our judicial system long ago established and enforced the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. “Parenting your own child and being raised by your own parents is a constitutional liberty interest in the United States,” says Katie Smith, director of the Human Services Section of the Denver City Attorney’s Office. “You have a right to raise your children unless there is evidence that you cannot do so.” Although there is no direct mention of “child” or “offspring” in the Constitution, most famously in Meyer v. Nebraska, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1923 that parents have the right to “establish a home and bring up children.” The message is persistent and simple: Stay out of my house.
Simultaneously, the American government has also said that to protect a child’s well-being, it will invoke a legal concept called “parens patriae,” Latin for “parent of the nation.” That idea helped created a preventive, sometimes punitive, system that mandates child removals, family supervision, interactions with human services departments, and criminal prosecutions. Under certain circumstances the government will intervene in your home in the most personal of ways—by taking away your kids.
Dr. Kathryn M. Wells works with multiple organizations to identify child abuse victims and coordinate medical assistance for them with other state and local agencies.
Dr. Kathryn M. Wells steps into a small room at the Family Crisis Center in southwest Denver and flips on the light. Painted on the wall is a soothing beach scene unlike anything you’d see in Colorado. A seagull perches on a log. Brightly colored umbrellas poke out from the sand as the ocean laps against the shore. On the room’s examination table, a roll of crisp white paper is stretched lengthwise, like a beach towel laid in the sand.
Next to the table is a piece of medical equipment called a colposcope. During routine annual exams, OB-GYNs use the instrument to take photos and videos of cervixes and vaginas, as does Wells; the difference is that she’s investigating allegations of trauma and sexual abuse of children. As one of only eight board-certified child abuse pediatricians in the state, Wells and her staff handle the medical examinations of many of the Denver youngsters who enter the child welfare system. In 2015 Wells’ office saw 925 patients for abuse or neglect, conducting 598 physical abuse evaluations and 85 sexual assault investigations.
Wells’ speech usually matches her stride: precise and fast, as if she doesn’t have time to waste on small talk or ambling steps. But if she thinks she’s lost you or is moving too quickly, she’ll slow down. Keeping conversations moving without losing her listeners is a savvy tool when working with patients, and even more so when she interacts with law enforcement, politicians, district attorneys, caseworkers, and anyone else trying to identify, stop, and punish child abuse.
Child abuse pediatricians often work in limbo, simultaneously within and outside the system. Wells works at both Denver Health and Children’s Hospital Colorado. If she’s seeing a child, that means a civil proceeding with the kid’s caretakers may have begun, and what Wells finds during her examination may prompt a criminal case. She’s interested in the incident—abuse, assault, neglect—that brought the child to her, and she’s a medical version of Sherlock Holmes who works to glean whatever information she can about a child’s health. She uses what she finds to create medical passport files, which she calls “medical homes,” for children that will follow them from placement to placement—or back to their families.
From a legal perspective, one of Wells’ tasks is to identify serious bodily injury (SBI). If she discovers it, the DA can pursue up to a Class 3 child abuse felony. Absent SBI, charges can drop to a lesser felony, which comes with substantially lower penalties, or even to a misdemeanor. The medical definition of SBI is fluid. Some doctors limit SBI diagnoses to egregious injuries like lacerations of the liver, multiple rib fractures, or subdural hematomas. Concussions are trickier; doctors often overlook the symptoms—they miss up to 30 percent of abusive head injuries—because in young children, head trauma often looks like the flu. Other doctors might consider a scar on the face to be SBI because it’s permanently disfiguring, but not scars on the back, which can be hidden. Malnourishment and delayed development might qualify as SBI, but probably only if another injury is present.
Identifying child abuse is more of a nuanced evaluation than a definitive diagnosis, which can flummox doctors who are intent on identifying symptoms and prescribing treatments; they can sometimes be less concerned with what caused the injury than with how to fix it. And if an injury isn’t going to kill the child that day, doctors might be less inclined to indicate SBI, especially if they don’t have training in child abuse, which many do not.
Child abuse pediatricians, though, are trained to sort through confusing injuries to see what’s troubling, what’s typical, and what’s not. Identifying bogus abuse claims is also part of their job. “I technically don’t have to make that definitive diagnosis that it’s absolutely this,” Wells says. “I don’t have to prove it was abuse or neglect to make my referral; I just have to have reasonable concern.”
If a kid ends up in her clinic, it means another health-care provider, a cop, a DA, or a caseworker has requested the evaluation, and Wells is constantly educating people about building better communication and cooperation between the medical community and the legal system. She sits on numerous child welfare committees, including Denver’s Child Safety Net Impact Team. But she’s acutely aware of where her job ends and an investigation begins. “We’re very careful about saying things like, ‘A plus B plus C equals abuse,’ ” she says. “My role is to help people understand the medical aspects of those things.”
The quality of the footage—taken on April 30 in Colorado—is grainy and rough. There’s a living room and what looks like a kitchen, all cast in an orange-yellow hue. The screen shakes. Dogs and people wander in and out of the frame. In the background, a voice, both shrill and gravelly, screams:
“You fucking bitch!”
“You’re going to die!”
“Where’s my fucking charger?”
“I’m going to kill you!”
“You’re a fucking piece of shit!”
The shouts are directed at a two-year-old boy. After nine minutes and 41 seconds, the boy’s mother, 27-year-old Katrina Flores Kennedy, “raises the booster chair above her head and violently slams it into the playpen near or on the victim,” reads the arrest affidavit from police in Lochbuie, a town northeast of Denver. As the child cries, Flores Kennedy walks away but returns and “begins to hit on or around the victim again and again.”
Usually, law enforcement would collect video evidence like this, make an arrest (or not), and file charges (or not), all without the public ever hearing about it. That is probably what would have happened here, but someone uploaded the Flores Kennedy video to Facebook and YouTube and it went viral, garnering more than 400,000 views within days.
An online petition circulated asking why Colorado law doesn’t consider the behavior shown in the video as felony child abuse. (Flores Kennedy was charged with three misdemeanors and pleaded guilty to one in October; the child was temporarily removed from the home after Flores Kennedy’s arrest.) The answer lies somewhere between the parallel judicial systems that protect kids: criminal and civil. Detectives and DAs work on the criminal side. Caseworkers, guardian ad litems (court-appointed advocates that represent children’s interests), and human services reside in the civil realm. Both systems are reactive: People call in reports, they get investigated, and families become case numbers.
The CDHS has distributed a flowchart of the civil process that tracks what happens once they receive a report. It includes more than two dozen possible pathways to the final tier, which lists “reunification with family” and “independent living” as goals. The chart only briefly notes the criminal process.
If that track were fleshed out, it would explain that cases begin with investigations, which in the Denver Police Department (DPD) are often handled by the Missing and Exploited Persons unit staffed with people such as 15-year veteran Detective Teresa Gessner. She doesn’t dress like a cop, opting instead for tailored slacks and shirts, but her clipped way of speaking makes her sound like one. She’s got a quick laugh that softens her face, a mannerism that must come in handy when interviewing witnesses and victims.
This wasn’t Gessner’s dream career. If anything, it found her. She was working as an EMT in New York City and remembers holding the hand of a girl all the way to the hospital after she’d suffered a subdural hematoma from being thrown down a flight of stairs. “Every time she breathed, it was a little cry,” Gessner says. “That stuck with me for years.”
She was still thinking about it after she moved to Colorado, where she joined the DPD and eventually ended up investigating child abuse allegations. Now she spends each workday tracking down information about crimes that her colleagues don’t want to hear about over beers after work: Kids covered with bruises from being hit with cables. Families in which one kid is beaten and not another. Sexual abuse allegations that expand to multiple victims.
Once someone has been arrested for alleged child abuse, Gessner has just 72 hours to compile enough evidence to present her findings to the DA. “I always start from a place of believing the child,” she says, although she knows that identifying false outcries (reports of abuse) is an important part of her investigation. She sometimes interviews victims but also relies on using a forensic interviewer, an independent contractor trained to ask nonleading questions to minors. In Denver, most of those interviews happen at the Denver Children’s Advocacy Center (DCAC), a mini-campus of three Victorian homes that have been converted into high-tech recording studios, medical exam rooms, and therapy spaces. Jodi Byrnes, the DCAC’s forensic interview program director, has conducted more than 1,000 such interviews and testifies in court several times a month. “The more they talk and the less I talk, the better interview I have,” she says of her process. “We want their words, not mine.”
Byrnes records her interviews; there’s even a ceiling camera that zooms in on children’s drawings—useful tools for explaining what happened when they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. Occasionally, nothing criminal has occurred. Sometimes kids are ready to tell the story about the worst thing that ever happened to them. Others are more reluctant; maybe they’re protecting someone they love, or maybe they don’t comprehend that their experiences aren’t normal.
Gessner watches it all on a screen from a back room and takes notes on things to follow up on. Because reports about abuse are often delayed, it’s not unusual to find no physical evidence. Children may be unable to pinpoint exactly when an attack happened, but without those details, Gessner likely won’t have a case.
So she starts to dig. She notes small details the victim mentions: It happened before my little brother was born. It was in the winter because I had my blue coat with me. It was in the bedroom because there was a picture of a Broncos player on the wall. Then she circles back to the adults to confirm details. Of course, that means relying upon family members being truthful and not covering for the accused. Gessner keeps asking questions until she thinks she has enough facts to say what happened and when—and maybe even get a confession. “Sometimes you are absolutely disgusted,” Gessner says. “I’ll go out after the interview and wash my hands because I feel so gross.”
There might be no better place than Denver to stop child abuse. That’s because our modern understanding of the problem—and the efforts to remedy it—developed here in the early 1960s. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children dates to 1875 and was modeled after an existing effort to prevent cruelty to animals. But it was parents raising baby boomers in the comparative comforts of a post–World War II world who shifted child-rearing trends away from basic daily survival to “what’s next?” questions.
The person who brought child abuse into the public discourse—into living room conversations—was C. Henry Kempe, a Denver pediatrician. Kempe began to notice patterns in certain children’s injuries that seemed to defy what can naturally occur with the myriad bumps, bruises, and scratches all kids accumulate. In particular, he noticed some children under three years old showing “poor skin hygiene, multiple soft tissue injuries, and malnutrition.” In 1962, Kempe, with several co-authors, presented his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association in an article titled “The Battered-Child Syndrome.” The authors laid out how to obtain diagnoses by identifying fractures, subdural hematomas, skin bruising, and other evidence of trauma. The article also began to bridge the legal and medical fields—acknowledging that these diagnoses could lead to legal action—and gave doctors a veritable decoder to do so. “To the informed physician,” they wrote, “the bones tell a story the child is too young or too frightened to tell.”
Kempe’s report didn’t just incite conversation—it prompted legislation. By 1970, every state had enacted a law about reporting child abuse. In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (it has been renewed several times, most recently in 2010), which clearly outlined the federal government’s interest in preventing, identifying, and investigating child abuse. Two years before that, Kempe had founded what is now called the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, part of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. From the beginning, the center has helped advance the idea of child abuse as a public health issue, which enables the creation of widespread programs and policies to address the issues on a national—or even global—level. The CDC agrees and said in 2014, “Child maltreatment is a significant public health problem in the United States and around the world.”
Executive director Dr. Desmond K. Runyan joined the center in 2011. During more than three decades of experience in pediatrics and child abuse research, he’s seen firsthand how our ideas about child abuse have expanded and evolved. “People don’t do this stuff to be a problem; they do it to solve problems,” Runyan says. “They don’t shake babies because they think it would be fun to see what happens or they are trying to damage their kid. As one mother said to me, ‘I would never hit my baby, but he needed to be quiet, so I shook him.’ ”
Runyan believes that clearer understanding about child abuse and when it starts could end the problem and put him and the Kempe Center out of business (which he says he would welcome). He advocates treating child abuse like an epidemic that can be cured, similar to how we lowered automobile accidents via seat belt laws and auto industry safety improvements. “We need to re-engineer the family in the same way that we’ve re-engineered cars,” Runyan says. “We need to set the environment differently.”
To some extent, we’ve already accomplished that. The practice of disciplining your child with spanking was quite commonplace through the 1980s, but over time, research has helped us better understand how our bodies and brains work together—and how our experiences can actually change our physical health. A 50-year study recently showed that spanking can increase aggression and antisocial behavior in children; today, only about half of parents in Colorado do it.
That connection between long-term health and trauma was confirmed in the adverse childhood experience (ACE) study, which released its 17-year findings in 2012. The project started at a California weight-loss clinic when Dr. Vincent Felitti noted that a good number of his patients were also survivors of sexual abuse and other childhood traumas. Intrigued, he eventually partnered with the CDC to create a study that tracked health backwards: Using people with conditions like heart disease and obesity, the study asked respondents if they’d experienced certain traumatic events as children, including being victims of child abuse or witnessing domestic violence. The study found that certain conditions in adulthood could be byproducts of earlier traumatic events; people who have endured more than four ACEs are 740 percent more likely to be addicted to alcohol, 1,220 percent more likely to attempt suicide, and 460 percent more likely to experience depression.
Much like Kempe’s report in 1962, the ACE study results are only a starting point for how we perceive and address child abuse. Offshoot studies are examining the impacts of repeated exposure to ACEs and the resiliency of individuals, because a high ACE count is a risk assessment, not a guarantee of future problems. We know that about a third of child abuse victims will later abuse their own children. So what makes the remaining two-thirds of these kids resilient enough to avoid repeating those mistakes once they become parents?
Latisha “Tish” Mead was emancipated from her parents in her teens and now is trying to forge a better life for herself, her siblings, and all survivors of child abuse.
Latisha Mead didn’t want to go. When the cops showed up at her family’s apartment in 2001, she’d been focused on getting her two-year-old brother to quiet down. She was just eight, but as the second oldest, she felt responsible for her four siblings. That already was her way: focused and pragmatic, but with a need to make things right and to take care of the people she loved.
Her parents were gone again. They said they were going to get food and took the baby with them. That was hours earlier. But it also wasn’t the first time they’d left her and her siblings at home, so Mead wasn’t too worried, even when her little brother started to cry. (She legally changed her surname to Mead in 2014.) She tried using her big-sister tricks—playing with him, soothing him—but she couldn’t get him to stop wailing. She searched around the filthy apartment for a bottle, hoping that the sucking would quiet his hunger, but she couldn’t find one, so Mead and her other siblings rigged up a Gatorade container with a plastic nipple. Problem solved.
The ruckus must have gone on for too long, because now cops were in the doorway asking where Mead’s parents were. She tried to convince them she was 13; Colorado doesn’t have a minimum age for leaving children unsupervised, but 12 years old is a standard principle. The petite girl was small for an eight-year-old, and when they asked what year she’d been born, she froze and didn’t do the math in her head quickly enough. The cops entered and saw the condition of the place—the piles of dirty clothes and dishes—and that the children had no food. They started gathering up clothes and kids and put them in squad cars. Mead was sitting in the back seat when her parents finally returned. She scrambled out, screaming, and ran toward the apartment complex.
That first removal, Mead now recalls, lasted about 10 days before her parents did everything the caseworker asked: bought food, cleaned up their apartment, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. Over the next four years, Mead would be removed several times as her parents struggled to maintain a regular residence, keep a clean home, and address their drug issues. They also went on to have three more kids, who joined Mead and her four other siblings in the revolving door of out-of-home placements. (Such removals happened almost 5,000 times in the state of Colorado in 2015.)
At first, Mead didn’t get why the counties—at least two became involved as her parents moved around the metro region—cared so much about her family. Sure, they moved a lot and there was never enough of anything (food, clothes, soap), but her mom was only an occasional yeller and didn’t hit her. Mead thought her parents sold food stamps and whatever else they could to get drugs, but she’d long ago learned to ignore their erratic behavior. She does recall feeling abandoned mentally and emotionally by her mom; sometimes she’d go check on her while she slept to make sure she was still breathing.
The old adage “we know what we know” is a particularly apt description of victims of abuse and neglect whose “normal” is shaped by what they experience. To these children, household violence or dangerous living conditions are ordinary. (The DPD’s Gessner notes this while describing a child who once told her, “I love Mommy, but I don’t think she loves me.”) An encounter with the legal system—civil or criminal—could be the first time these children’s brains register that what they’ve been living with isn’t normal and might be something that everyone around them finds abhorrent. The realization itself can be traumatizing.
That helps explain why, when Mead was taken from her parents at age 12 for the last time on May 11, 2005, she was no longer fighting or screaming; she was resolved. After nearly a dozen foster care placements and revolving visitation with her parents, she craved stability. She found it in fleeting moments, like when she anxiously called her foster parent because she couldn’t find a sponge in the house. When she discovered that there were extras, stashed away for just these moments, it was an epiphany. “I finally saw a different way,” Mead told me. “I finally saw the life I wanted. I finally saw not living in filth without food in the fridge, not living without having my basic necessities and needs.”
During all the time spent holding tight to her family through the placements and moves and caseworker meetings, Mead had become used to other people making decisions for her, her personal choice or independence was never an option. But now Mead wanted out. Not necessarily forever, but she knew she needed to help herself heal and grow. She asked her mother to relinquish her parental rights. “I made it clear to her that it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, that it doesn’t mean I don’t want you in my life,” Mead recalls now. “It just means for me to feel completely successful in my life and go where I want, I can’t keep going back to you guys. I can’t keep going back to that lifestyle.” Her mother signed the papers and her parental rights were terminated in 2008. At 16, Mead was free.
Given the intense emotions child abuse evokes, prosecuting such cases might seem like an easy task. In reality, the process is complicated, even when doctors like Wells identify SBI or detectives like Gessner find evidence that corroborates a victim’s forensic interview. Even in graphic cases such as Sperling’s, the DA still may not be able to file charges that would lead to convictions with long sentences that could keep perpetrators imprisoned until their victims reach adulthood.
If a child dies, DAs can file Class 1 or Class 2 felony charges, which carry presumptive mandatory sentences ranging from 16 years to life. If a child lives and SBI was checked off by a doctor, a Class 3 felony, whose sentencing ranges from 10 to 32 years, is the most punitive charge an abuser will face. (Child abuse has more severe punishments than a typical Class 3 felony because it’s categorized as an “extraordinary risk” crime, along with aggravated robbery and stalking.) Minus an SBI distinction, a lesser felony or misdemeanor must be charged; there was no official SBI diagnosis in the Sperling and Bailey case.
As with all prosecutions, the level of charges relies on what DAs think they can prove. Colorado state legislators have slightly lowered that bar by not requiring the prosecution to prove intent in Class 3 felony child abuse trials. They still must demonstrate that alleged abusers knew they were doing something that could cause an injury.
It can be a difficult concept for juries to accept, especially when tearful, maybe even remorseful, parents relate their versions of events in court. Jurors might remember that one time they left their kid in the car when they went into the gas station to pick up milk. Or the morning their dad hit them so hard it left a mark. Because one in four people are likely victims of abuse, many voir dire sessions feature frequent private meetings between the judge, attorneys, and potential jurors who recount stories of their own abuse so that the parties can assess their impartiality. Whether these people display empathy or more of a “lock them up” or “I survived worse” attitude, they can be dismissed and often are.
These trials may have few witnesses and, especially in sexual abuse cases with delayed outcries, scant physical evidence. DAs present wide timelines to accommodate children’s imprecise memories—Class 3 child sex abuse felonies are often charged as occurring over a two- or even five-year period—and all these factors can foster reasonable doubt. “I think the tendency is to see the injury and the horrific nature of it and maybe jump to a conclusion that it should be an easy case to win,” says Christine Washburn, a 17-year veteran of the Denver DA’s office who’s spent much of her career with the Family Violence Unit. “There might be a lot of complexities about proving that A) This was actually abuse, or B) The person being charged is the right person. Or maybe’s there’s a little bit of both happening.”
Jurors must also weigh the courtroom testimony of alleged victims since a 2004 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Crawford v. Washington changed the way that child abuse cases are tried. The ruling clarified when hearsay evidence (statements made outside of a courtroom) could be admitted as evidence. In child abuse cases, with some exceptions, it meant that although forensic interview tapes qualify, a defendant has the right to hear those claims in court. This means that accusers as young as four might have to testify, and it’s the DA’s job to make sure that child goes into as much detail as possible and isn’t coerced. Naturally, defense attorneys try to undermine such testimony, albeit very carefully. “You can’t go in all guns blazing,” says criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Wolf, who has practiced law in the metro area for nearly a decade and says about a third of his practice relates to child abuse charges. “The best word for it is ‘icky.’ It’s not appropriate, and it’s not what the jury wants to see.”
Breathing is something we take for granted. Our minds and bodies handle the logistics of pulling oxygen into our lungs, through our cardiovascular systems, and into the very essences of our beings. Without this unconscious process repeating itself hundreds of times every hour, we cannot survive. But how often does anyone remember a single breath?
Latisha Mead does. After leaving her parents’ home for good, she still saw them occasionally on weekend visits. It was a way to stay connected with her siblings and her mom, like she promised. She was still sorting through what “normal” would be for her and figuring out what wasn’t OK about her childhood. It would be almost three years before she fully revealed the abuse she’d suffered from her father. She might have kept it a secret if not for the fear that he’d do the same thing to her younger siblings.
Her protective side took over. When she was 15, Mead told her foster parent what had happened to her—and what was still happening during those weekend visits. The legal response was swift. Police arrested Mead’s father on June 19, 2008, and the DA filed more than a dozen charges against him. Mead remembers hoping that her father wouldn’t see the arrest coming, that he wouldn’t be able to escape.
During a four-day trial that November that featured Mead’s testimony, her father decided to plead guilty to four charges, including two Class 3 felonies for knowingly or recklessly causing SBI to a child and two Class 5 felonies for attempted sex assault on a child. On December 12, 2008, he was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison (but could be paroled earlier). As her father exited the courtroom, Mead suddenly felt able to breathe again. “It was difficult, but at the same time it was very healing to be able to physically see him leave and the door shut,” Mead says. “It brought closure. Safety. Security. It brought me peace.”
Child welfare and abuse is a frequent topic during each legislative session in Colorado, and the battles surrounding how it’s defined, who will get funds to prevent it, and how tough on perpetrators we should be have been legendary. In 2012, former Aurora legislator Debbie Stafford told the Denver Post that “it’s a game of hide-and-seek, and it’s going to be played over the bodies of dead and injured children.”
State Senator Linda Newell knows the clashes well. First elected in 2008, she quickly adopted child welfare issues as one of her signature causes. Her business consulting background inclined her to tackle inefficient systems, she cared about kids, and a constituent convinced her early on that the Legislature needed a new bulldog for the issue. What seemed initially like an easy win was thornier than she expected. “It was very clear to me that for some people, this had nothing to do with kids but everything to do with power and control and dollars,” Newell says today.
Term limits are ending the eight-year senator’s tenure next month, which has given Newell time to reflect upon her legislative career. She recalls one bill that would have expanded the state’s mandatory reporter list for suspected child abuse. (The list now includes nearly 40 professions, including doctors, teachers, dentists, and therapists, and failure to report is a Class 3 misdemeanor.) Newell was trying to whip up support for the bill with a fellow legislator who was not going to vote for it. She countered the lawmaker’s argument with a “What about the children?” speech, but her colleague remained unswayed, telling a stunned Newell that if the law passed, the legislator might have to report somebody. “Are you freaking kidding me?” Newell says now. “You would rather protect a family member than you would that child?”
Newell went on to help pass adjustments to the mandatory reporting rules and create the Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) office. What was originally proposed as an independent agency fell under the supervision of the CDHS, effectively limiting the CPO’s watchdog capabilities. But Newell and her allies persisted, and this year the office moved into the judicial branch.
With Newell’s departure, it’s unclear who the state Legislature’s most vocal child welfare advocate will be. Colorado’s Legislature is a part-time affair; many lawmakers hold down other, full-time jobs when not in session, and the learning curve for novices is steep. It doesn’t help that two other legislators who focused on criminal justice issues, state Senator Pat Steadman and state Representative Beth McCann, are also term limited, although McCann was elected in November to be Denver’s new DA. “My focus [as DA] would probably be more on looking at the system as a whole,” McCann said while campaigning this past spring. “Are we incarcerating the right people for the right reasons, and should we be providing other alternatives that might be more effective in actually reducing crime long term?”
When the 2017 session convenes next month, there will still be a few veterans of the child welfare wars at the Capitol. One of them is Longmont-based state Representative Jonathan Singer. A former child welfare caseworker, Singer has seen firsthand what works—and what doesn’t—when the government gets involved with a family, and his inclination is toward preventive solutions. “I’ve seen just a very underwhelming under-reaction [to child abuse] from law enforcement and prosecutors,” Singer says. “At the same time, in my world now, every dollar we spend on putting someone away is a dollar taken away from helping kids reunite with their parents when the real issue may be [something like] alcohol addiction.”
Singer’s professional experience is one reason he backed a statewide audit of caseworkers’ workloads. The results were definitive but unsurprising: Caseworkers and their managers are so taxed that the state would have to hire 574 more of them to just meet basic needs. CDHS officials say they’ve added 185 caseworkers since the report—Colorado’s recent population boom might require even more hires—and Singer hopes the additions will allow caseworkers to focus more on families instead of acting like police officers.
Legislators have also created a statewide hotline for suspected child abuse. Reports to 1-844-CO-4-KIDS route all child abuse calls to a state-run call center, which disperses the claims to individual counties for investigation. The seemingly obvious solution helps alleviate confusion the general public has had about reporting abuse; pre-hotline, abuse calls might have ended up with ERs, 911, 311, or any of our 64 counties.
One reason people had been unclear about whom to call is that the CDHS supervises the 64 county-administered departments. Thus, the state doles out the money—in fiscal year 2015, it allotted $448.3 million to child welfare—but each county is responsible for hiring caseworkers, managing workloads, interacting with law enforcement, and so on. The setup is especially complicated in the Denver metro area because at least six county systems can be involved as people in the system move around the region.
Proponents laud the Colorado model for giving counties autonomy, especially in rural areas, and Colorado is just one of nine states with this system. Others aren’t sure it’s the best approach. “Many of us would prefer it as state- and then region-based,” Newell says. “But the counties have such a huge hand over the gold dome that they’re a very, very powerful lobby.”
The hotline creates a sort of hybrid system of state- and county-run processes, and so far it’s been successful. Most calls—65 percent of the 172,177 made between January and October of this year—come from mandatory reporters, but the number of private citizens calling in has also increased. The hotline enables the state to more accurately track multiple abuse complaints and keep tabs on children whose families move across county lines more effectively.
Neither centralizing the system, nor increasing penalties for repeated child abuse, nor making child abuse investigations mimic domestic violence calls (which require a mandatory arrest) will likely be on the legislative agenda in 2017. But other anti-child-abuse efforts should have a chance. Singer wants to increase communication between law enforcement and caseworkers by enforcing the requirement that each county have an interagency agreement between human services departments and law enforcement. These documents can be critical to investigating, prosecuting, and preventing child abuse because the agencies have separate data systems that don’t talk to each other, and a 2014 Colorado Office of the State Auditor’s report showed that 12 counties were not complying.
What sounds like bureaucratic minutiae actually explains why these cases are so difficult to prosecute. Separate record-keeping means cops can’t access confidential health information and caseworkers can’t discover someone’s criminal history. This often makes these investigations play out like a high-stakes version of Go Fish. For example, a detective can ask if there is pertinent drug use in a home, and a caseworker may confirm it. But the caseworker probably wouldn’t volunteer that information without being asked the right question—and in some cases, they may not know. Conversely, caseworkers can’t see municipal court records—which can include disorderly conduct and restraining orders—to know that a parent isn’t supposed to be at a residence.
There’s tentative but widespread support for better record-sharing, from detectives to doctors. How it might work is where things get murky. The Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center (RMCLC), a child welfare advocacy group that provides free legal representation for children, holds regular think-tank meetings to introduce legislators to child welfare concepts and motivate them to do something about it. “I think a lot of people want to help,” says RMCLC executive director Becky Miller Updike. “But until one of them says we’re going to put the hammer down and make this a priority, and we’re going to fund it— that’s a huge piece.”
On a mild July night, in the kitchen of her cozy two-bedroom apartment, Latisha Mead preps steaks for the grill while her partner, Courtney Becker, chops up a salad. They met two years ago when Mead was in San Francisco for a conference about technology and foster kids. She was 21, newly single, and decided to go out to a bar to unwind. The two talked, danced, and kept in touch. After six months of dating, a getaway to London and Paris, twice-monthly trips to visit each other, and hours and hours of phone time, Becker moved to Denver and now works in business development at a tech company.
The apartment in southeast Denver features dozens of pictures on the walls of their life together. It also has a patio with enviable views of the Rocky Mountains. In winter, through the bare tree branches, you can spot the Cash Register building amid downtown’s other glass-and-steel skyscrapers. In summer, they watch the setting sun reveal its full spectrum of brilliant colors.
Mead minds the grill, her long, mocha brown hair tied back. She looks taller than her petite five feet three inches, probably because of how she holds herself: always upright, like a sentinel. But her demeanor softens when she looks at Becker shooing their two dogs—Jax and Balto—away from a cheese tray on the coffee table.
Her resilient life defies what statistics say about children who are removed from their homes. Unlike many abuse victims, Mead graduated from high school, went to college, and is now hoping to become a nurse. She’s got a full fridge, an orderly apartment, and is saving to buy a home.
Propped against the sectional in the living room, 15-year-old Rigo stretches out his legs. He’s Mead’s younger brother—the infant who was with his parents that first night the cops came. He’s been living with the couple for a few months because, in a move that redraws the conventional family tree, Mead and Becker—23 and 24, respectively—are now his foster parents. After visiting him in one of his foster homes, Mead and Becker knew they wanted more for him. They took about four months of classes to become certified by DDHS and surprised him with the news that he could live with them, if he chose to.
He accepted. Now Rigo talks about a pickup softball game this summer when he nearly hit the ball out of the park. Mead beams and playfully ribs him about how far the drive went. “I feel bad for your kids when they’re teenagers,” Rigo teases back.
It’s only been a few months, but the young family already has rituals, including regular Super Smash Bros. video game battles. Mead and Rigo each swear they are the household’s top player; Becker surprises them both with the occasional victory. The trio has even created a custom level in the game that’s unique to them. Floating platforms drift up and down as the animelike players leap around with swords and weapons, tumble down, and leap up again, a fitting virtual reality example of the constantly shifting and moving landing spots this atypical family has had to master.
Today, Mead has regained more of her family than she ever thought possible. She worries about Rigo as only a mom or an older sister can. She has flower tattoos on her torso for each of her seven siblings so she can always keep them close. For Rigo, she picked a rose because the boy she remembered from childhood was so sweet and loving. When he first moved in, she had trouble seeing that sensitivity in the teenager he’d become, but now she says that while they are still relearning how to live as a family, her rose is back.
She also knows that her story is far from complete. As the ACE research indicates, the abuse and neglect she endured as a child could one day impact her long-term health. Or not. Regardless, she’s not taking chances. She keeps her mind organized and is adept at analyzing and finding solutions so that whatever happens to her next will be on her terms. Justice—for her and so many other abuse survivors—extends beyond a courtroom to the opportunities she will have as an adult.
Mead realizes her outcome isn’t typical. So much of her life has been determined by what has happened to her: events, moments, and incidents beyond her control. Now she’s starting a life defined more by what she’s done. “I’ve been victimized, but I’ve never been a victim,” Mead says. She talks about what happened to her because she wants to protect families, get parents help when they need it, remove kids when their homes aren’t safe, make sure foster kids have a better chance at graduating, lock up serial abusers…her list goes on.
She wants to find the kids like the ones in Sperling’s Uptown apartment, or the boy in the Flores Kennedy video, or any child in need, before they become headline news. It might seem Sisyphean, but as Mead stands with Becker and Rigo on the balcony watching the sun shoot streaks of red, ochre, and orange across the distant Rockies, it seems possible—even plausible. “I don’t come with woes,” she says. “I don’t come with sorrows. I don’t come with problems. This is what happened. Now what can we do?”