In a highly unusual ruling, yesterday the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that three siblings severely abused in the home of their biological mother and later in foster care can pursue their lawsuit against Adams County social workers who allegedly failed to protect them and deceived their adoptive parents about the extent of their problems.
In the summer of 2002, the siblings — then ages 9, 6 and 3 — were adopted by a couple who only learned about the history of abuse on the eve of the adoption. The children were engaging in incestuous acts with each other, and one became suicidal and had to be removed from the adoptive home.
The adoptive parents installed alarms in the children's rooms to prevent them from abusing each other. The couple ended up divorcing, blaming the stress caused by the children's emotional problems for the failed marriage.
The adoptive parents sued the Adams County Department of Social Services, asserting that social workers had a duty to fully disclose the background of the children. But the parents lost their case when a jury decided that the social workers were not "willful and wanton" in failing to inform them of the history of abuse.
Thursday's ruling allows lawyers for the children to proceed to trial with different claims — that the siblings' rights to be free from harm were violated by the workers entrusted to protect them.
Adams County argued that the social workers were protected from the lawsuit by the state's governmental immunity law. The court disagreed and concluded that the division director of child welfare, the supervisor of the other two, acted "recklessly."
One of the social workers is still employed by the county, the other has since retired. And the director now works for the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services.
The decision Thursday comes a month after a federal judge ruled that social workers in Denver were not immune from a lawsuit in the case of 7-year-old Chandler Grafner, who was starved to death by his foster parents. In that case, the judge noted the neglect of Chandler by social services was also "conscious-shocking" and that a complaint of child abuse made by a teacher's aide a month before his death was not thoroughly investigated by Denver Human Services.