Which more accurately describes the El Paso County Department of Human Services (DHS):
It is a praiseworthy, family-friendly and desperately-needed vehicle for strengthening at-risk families and insuring the safety of children; or
It is an out-of-control governmental agency driven by a fundamental hostility to parents and the family unit?
A battle royal is shaping up in Colorado Springs over this question. Its debate in meetings of the Board of County Commissioners (whose members are also the Board of DHS) has degenerated into something out of The Jerry Springer Show: shouting matches, gavel-pounding calls to order, accusations of corruption, illegalities and cover-ups, personal insults, angry walkouts.
On the one hand, DHS under Director David Berns is attracting national acclaim as a model of reform and innovative services.
In 1999 alone, Berns was named Colorado Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers, he was given the Exemplary Service Award by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coalition, and he was voted by his peers (state and regional program managers for the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators) to receive the Excellence in Public Child Welfare Administration award.
Berns' reforms and innovations prompted invitations to address the entire state legislatures of California, New York and South Carolina, the social service committees of every state legislature in the country, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Child Welfare League of America, and the National Association of Public Human Service Administrators.
On the other hand, DHS is being laid siege by a handful of public officials, talk show hosts and local citizens committed to exposing the department as a governmental agency that destroys families, tramples parental rights and steals children from their parents.
Conservative talk radio personality Chuck Baker declared it his "ultimate dream" in one of his frequent anti-DHS shows that he live to see "the absolute and total closure of the Department of Social Services in El Paso County. I want to see the building dark, I want to see every one of the renegades in that building looking for a job. Flipping a few burgers in a burger outlet might bring about a few of the values [they] apparently lost somewhere while [they] were in the process of raiding and raping families all over El Paso County."
Calhan resident Suzanne Shell, probably the most relentless and outspoken critic of DHS in all El Paso County, opens the public comment portion of every Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) meeting with another list of recent DHS misconduct and treachery.
Shell, in fact, has written a book -- Profane Justice: A Comprehensive Guide to Asserting Your Parental Right -- outlining how and why all social service departments are "agents of the State" with the goal of "taking custody of your child away from you."
"There is a war raging over control of our children," she warns. "A cry of outrage is spreading across this nation as increasing numbers of children are wrongfully ripped from their loving parents' arms and secreted away by the unscrupulous agents of the State."
DHS under Berns
The Department of Human Services is the governmental agency charged by federal and state law with administering two massive tasks: promoting the economic and social well-being of lower income families, and protecting the safety of children within their families.
DHS provides services to over 11,000 families each year. Ten percent of the people of El Paso County have received DHS assistance of some kind.
The present director, David Berns, came here in May of '97 after a 27-year career in Michigan that included 11 years as a county director of Children's Services and seven as state Director of Social Services.
Three years into his tenure here, Berns has earned kudos for the way he has revamped the Department by fitting services to real-life problems of actual people instead of fitting people into already-existing programs.
He has also won praise for taking a proactive approach to child safety that emphasizes preventive support services over punitive measures.
This is highly significant because it is one of the crucial functions of DHS to intervene in the family unit when a child's safety is in jeopardy.
DHS case workers find substantive evidence of abuse or neglect in about 900-1,000 of the 8,500 reports they investigate yearly. When evidence is found, the child is taken into protective custody.
This step requires by law that the parent(s) be given a court hearing within 72 hours, at which time a program of treatment, counseling and support is stipulated.
"Around 60 percent of the cases that get this far," says Berns, "involve some kind of substance abuse. There are typically serious problems in the home, often out-of-control emotions and behavior, often violence. Lives are in turmoil with kids caught in the middle."
Three-fourths of even these cases don't go to trial, however, because the parent(s) and their attorney(s) agree to the stipulated treatment, counseling and support programs. If and when the parent(s) successfully complete these programs and the overseeing case worker is satisfied that the child's safety is assured, the child is usually returned to the home.
"As much as possible," says Berns, "we try to keep kids safe and reunite families through non-punitive, family-enabling programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Medicaid, food stamps, employment services, counseling, school attendance projects, drug and alcohol treatments, day care and transportation assistance."
This emphasis on treatment and support has produced some impressive results, El Paso County has seen a 27 percent drop in the number of cases DHS asks the courts to take jurisdiction of, and a 20 percent drop in the number of children in foster care. In 1998-99, foster care placements dropped by 17 percent -- even with a 26 percent increase in the number of families served.
DHS allocates $4.1 million of its budget to family services that enable 550 children per month to remain safely in their homes in lieu of foster care or residential placement.
Almost half the 700 children in residential care, meanwhile, are in DHS custody at the request of the parent(s), and a little over a fourth of the 221 children removed from homes and put up for adoption yearly are eventually adopted by relatives.
Most of the 2,600 Child Welfare cases open at any given time are closed within 3-6 months.
"If there's been a rap on me in my entire career," says Berns, "it's that I put too much emphasis on preserving families at the expense of child safety."
It is ironic that the Child Welfare division of DHS is under attack at a time when it is achieving unprecedented success in its avowed mission "to keep families safely together or to reunite them when children are temporarily taken out of the home."
Enter Beedy and Shell
County Commissioner Betty Beedy and Calhan resident Suzanne Shell are not admirers of DHS, to put it politely.
They have been coordinating resources and efforts to advocate on behalf of parents who, having been acted against by DHS for child safety reasons, are unhappy with the disposition of their cases and consider themselves victims of DHS injustice and/or misconduct for a number of reasons.
Some object to custody outcomes. Some are angry over having been "put under the looking glass." Some feel "the government" is meddling in areas where it has no business. Some have personality conflicts with case workers. Some are being adversarial and uncooperative. Some have failed to complete the prescribed programs successfully. Some are in denial about behaviors that led to their situation.
Beedy enters this picture because the Board of County Commissioners oversees DHS. The BOCC doubles as the Board of DHS. The director of DHS is a political appointee of that board.
Beedy holds that her position as county commissioner makes it her duty to advocate on behalf of constituents in conflict with DHS, and her advocacy is a legitimate attempt to remedy the complaints of citizens she's been put in office to serve.
But her manner of advocacy, of late, goes far beyond making complaints known to appropriate DHS personnel. She has taken to lobbying personally and at length for outcomes that favor her constituents at DHS administrative meetings, hearings and court proceedings, and at BOCC meetings.
Beedy's advocacy creates a conflict of interest within DHS that threatens to politicize departmental proceedings. Berns explained why in a recent interview.
"Commissioner Beedy," he said, "is my boss. It's only human nature to try to keep your boss happy, and I've felt pressured at times to give cases she's championing special attention -- check and double-check, maybe even have a certain matter re-investigated.
"What do I do, though, if I'm pressured by a commissioner to return this kid home, or to fire this therapist, and I don't believe that to be right? That's a conflict of interest."
Berns asserts that he would never make a recommendation based on pressure by a commissioner. "I'm going to do what I believe is professionally and ethically correct," he said. "The Board of Commissioners can fire me for that, but it takes three votes to do that."
Beedy's advocacy has also produced friction with Judge Richard Toth of the 4th Judicial District.
During a recent DHS court proceeding, the DHS attorney recommended that custody of a child go to the mother. Beedy, though, was lobbying for the father to get custody. The Guardian Ad Litem assigned to the child protested that Beedy's advocacy was exerting inappropriate pressure on the deliberations.
Judge Toth agreed. Noting that Beedy's advocacy created the possibility of DHS recommendations based on considerations other than the child's best interest, Judge Toth said he might move to hire special counsel and move the case to a venue outside El Paso County.
"I've been doing this for 20 years," Toth said, "and I've never seen a County Commissioner get involved this way in DHS court cases. DHS has county attorneys to represent it in court. Commissioner Beedy should stop interfering with the court process and using these kids as political footballs."
Beedy, of course, sees it differently.
She claims Toth awarded custody to the mother to retaliate against the father, who "angered the judge by fighting the system and bringing attention to the grave injustices that are perpetrated by DHS on the poor and minorities."
"Judge Toth," she said, "seems to believe he controls the system and the people. He called me to the front of the court and berated me for making a custody case a political issue. I told him, though, that the Board of County Commissioners is also the Board of Social Services, which makes me legally responsible for the actions and performance of DHS. When people bring me complaints about DHS, I must act on them."
Activist Suzanne Shell has acted in close concert with Beedy, making use of every public forum possible to praise Beedy and Commissioner Duncan Bremer, to denigrate Commissioners Chuck Brown, Ed Jones and Jeri Howells, and to level new charges of DHS misconduct and treachery.
She may, however, have extended her efforts into illegitimate areas.
Shell is under investigation by the Colorado Supreme Court for practicing law without a license. CSC investigators Christyne Czarnowsky and Michael Williams said they were precluded from providing information about a case under investigation, but attorneys who have had dealings with Shell report that she has been filing court briefs and pleadings, and dispensing legal advice to parents involved in DHS interventions.
Shell, like Beedy, has denounced DHS as "child stealers." She holds Colorado Springs to be the hub of a far-reaching conspiracy to take children from parents who subscribe to traditional values and absolute truths.
In recent months, Beedy's and Shell's advocacy campaign has split the Board of Commissioners into adversarial camps.
Beedy, and to a lesser extent Bremer, have been speaking out against DHS on behalf of constituents at odds with that department. Jones, Brown and Howells have avoided personal advocacy, insisting regular DHS channels and trained DHS personnel are the proper means of remedying grievances.
Tensions over this issue have prompted emotional outbursts, shouting matches and angry denunciations during BOCC meetings.
In recent weeks, Shell has leveled increasingly vitriolic personal attacks on Commissioners Brown, Jones and Howells, charging them with cowardly ignoring DHS treachery while Commissioners Beedy and Bremer courageously fight it.
At the January 13 meeting, Shell angrily demanded that the Board fire Nancy Talent, a secretary in the County Commissioner office, "for unethical behavior and for violation of privacy."
Shell argued that a confidential fax concerning her Supreme Court investigation was shown to Brown, Jones and Howells -- "the three Commissioners who have an active and public dislike for me personally."
Noting that she'd filed a complaint of misconduct against Brown, Jones and Howells, she demanded an official investigation into their behavior, charging them with a cover-up and falsification of records.
"This board," said Shell, "is dominated by vindictive and corrupt personalities."
By now equally incensed, Commissioner Howells demanded the matter be turned over to the District Attorney's office immediately. "This," Howells blazed, "has nothing to do with ethics. It has to do with Commissioner Beedy's followers."
Shell again used the "public comments" portion at the opening of the January 20 BOCC meeting to excoriate Brown, Jones and Howells.
Accusing the three of waging "a petty personal vendetta" against Beedy and herself, Shell turned on Howells.
"Commissioner Howells," she said, "you are not for anything. You're just against Commissioner Beedy -- and, therefore, me -- and that's a pathetically weak stand to take. You are not for the families of El Paso County, or for quality county services, or for DHS accountability. You condone DHS abuses, and Commissioners Jones and Brown walk in lockstep with you."
Turning next to Brown, Shell observed that he had, on occasion, "flaunted" his WWII military service. "Now, though," she said, "you have become the oppressor rather than the liberator" -- at which point Brown angrily attempted to interject. Shell talked him down, Jones banged the gavel and called for order, several commissioners and Shell shouted simultaneously.
When order was restored sufficiently for Shell to resume, she angrily enjoined Brown: "Don't flaunt your past military service unless you are willing to back it up with political action, lest we the citizens see how power corrupts when embodied by you, sir, and you stand before us branded as a hypocrite, your military service a sham" -- at which point Brown furiously exited the room, Jones banged his gavel and shouted "Ms. Shell, please!" Shell spoke louder and faster, and refused to yield the floor.
What's going on here?
The careful observer will note how little of this exchange has to do with DHS per se.
The conflict seems to be less a function of DHS as a specific issue -- although it is that, too -- than of DHS as the latest public stage for the ongoing clash of mindsets that has previously surfaced in these parts via the Parental Rights Amendment, Christian Discipline, and even zoning in eastern El Paso County.
The common theme of all three issues is the "inalienable" and "natural" right of individuals to enjoy their lives, liberties and properties free of Big Brother's governmental intervention.
In the Parental Rights Amendment (PRA) as proposed on the 1997 ballot, Colorado voters were asked to affirm: "All persons have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; of acquiring possessing and protecting property; of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness; and of parents to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children."
One of the issues frequently cited by PRA's strongest supporters is the right of parents to discipline their children in the way they see fit, without any interference from the government or its agents.
Among the more controversial and loudly argued issues was the "inalienable right," if not duty, of parents to administer "corporal punishment" by striking, slapping, or spanking with their hands or with such aids as paddles, rolled up newspapers, belts and the like.
Among the Religious Right, many defend doing so as "Christian discipline."
This principal became a public issue back in 1995 when Denver talk show personality Bob Enyart -- who billed himself as "the nation's most popular self-proclaimed right-wing religious fanatic homophobic anti-choice talk show host" -- was convicted of child abuse and did 60 days in jail for administering a spanking to his 11-year old stepson (the son had refused to take a bath) that broke the skin and left raised welts several days later.
Enyart's run-in with the courts prompted an outraged defense of Christian discipline as a biblically-sanctioned principal by a host of Christian organizations, publications and individuals.
A publication issued by Colorado Christian Coalition declared, for example, that "the Bible's position on discipline is stated clearly and numerously. It speaks of blows that cleanse away evil. Proverbs 20:30 reads, 'the blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil, so do stripes...' Hebrews 12:11 states that discipline is -- and should be -- painful."
Beedy's and Shell's positions on DHS are a direct extension of their views of government as a force hostile to, and out to erode, the"natural, essential and inalienable rights" of parents to be the sole authority of their children.
Beedy is an avowed born-again fundamentalist Christian with an ideological conservatism grounded in absolute belief in the absolute truth of the Bible. It is impossible to understand anything about her, including her position on DHS, without understanding that.
In 1991, Beedy and her husband founded Rainbow Ministries, a non-profit designed to assist home-schooling parents. The stated mission if Rainbow Ministries is "to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ as set forth in His Word, the Holy Bible, by preaching and teaching His Gospel and making disciples of all nations."
This overt linkage of home schooling with evangelical Protestantism -- education per se isn't so much as mentioned -- offers an index into Beedy's world view. The mission of Rainbow Ministries closely accords with Beedy's perceived mission as a government official.
Beedy publicly declares it her mission as County Commissioner to "legislate morality," and she's said that morality "must be based on strict biblical standards." She made it a campaign pledge when running for County Commissioner in 1996 to use her office to "promote morality." She has lived up to that pledge, often in tabloid headline fashion.
Beedy has used the term "normal white American" in explaining her views, and she cast the sole vote against renaming a portion of local highway after Martin Luther King, explaining she couldn't do so because he was an adulterer. She was the sole BOCC member declining to sign a proclamation last month in support of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities, insisting that her name not appear anywhere on the document.
During a 1997 presentation to BOCC by Berns about reasons for child support delinquencies, Beedy interjected that women who receive child support and date men other than their ex husbands are "sluts." (She later insisted that she meant only women who "hop from bed to bed.")
She once declined to attend a summer conference of county officials because it was at a ski resort that unofficially permits nude skiing on the final day of the season, and she recently stated that single parents, gays and lesbians should be disqualified as foster parents because they can't provide the "ideal" family environment.
And Beedy frequently presents herself in BOCC discussions as a champion of The People against a government out to "trample" constitutional freedoms.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Beedy considers DHS an entity that is fundamentally hostile to parents, that routinely tramples their rights, and that "steals" their children. She considers herself the champion of parents who are battling DHS for their constitutional rights and for their children.
"All I'm after," she said in a recent interview, "is a DHS that works, that's accountable, and that really, truly protects physically-abused children."
She insists that DHS is anti-parent in both orientation and action. "The philosophy of DHS is that the parent is guilty until proven innocent. Once they catch the parent in the system," she said, "there's no provision for that parent to prove innocence. The system won't pay attention to anything that refutes the assumption of guilt.
"They refuse to believe children when they say the parent did nothing wrong, and they're quick to twist or misinterpret what the kids say to use it against the parent.
"DHS regularly takes children out of homes when they aren't in imminent danger. It's a system designed to tear families apart, take kids from the parents, turn the parents against each other."
Why, we asked, is DHS so hellbent on undermining and destroying parents?
After a pause, Beedy replied, "Why they do it I'm still trying to figure out."
Beedy denied that her stance toward DHS is a function of animosity toward government.
"I'm in government," she said. "I'm dedicated to protecting the constitution. That's not hostility to government. I do think, though, that the government is hostile to people who question it and work to make it accountable."
We are in danger
To know Shell, read her book, Profane Justice.
She, too, is a fundamentalist Christian with a deep-seated antipathy to "the State" and its many "agents," among whom she numbers social workers, prosecutors, police, judges, police psychologists, therapists, school teachers and counselors, and anyone else who receives their paycheck from the State.
She, too, believes the State and its agents are part of a vast conspiracy to usurp parental authority and gain control of our children through governmental meddling in the family unit.
The chief agent in this conspiracy is the Department of Human Services -- "an incestuous nest of child savers" that treats parents as "villains."
According to Shell, DHS harbors particular hostility to "people who are reluctant to have the government run their lives, people who believe in corporal punishment (spanking), and people who are 'overly involved' in religion."
This makes Christian parents targeted candidates for DHS persecution.
Most parents," she observed in a recent interview, "believe in the right to raise children as we see fit. We don't expect to see a child removed from a home because of allegations of emotional abuse simply because the mother is a fundamentalist Christian and home schools" -- something Shell insists to have happened in two cases of DHS intervention.
Shell believes spanking in its many varieties to be an important tool for parents hoping to raise their children in the ways of righteousness. Parents who employ "the rod of correction," however, put themselves at risk of child abuse charges and DHS intervention.
The prudent parent, accordingly, will do as Shell does: videotape every spanking. "If sonny boy turns you in for abuse," she says, "you'll need these tapes to prove you were not abusive."
Shell's views on these matters are grounded in a run-in she had with DHS ten years ago.
She relates in her book how her son, upon turning 13, became "sullen, destructive, angry and rebellious." Shell says this was because the boy "had been brainwashed by the schools, by television, by society."
When, one day, he yelled at his stepfather (Shell's second husband), the stepfather administered eight blows to the boy's bottom (pants down) with a "martinet" -- a wooden paddle with ten-inch leather strips.
When another argument broke out the following day, the boy fled the house, called the sheriff and expressed fear of being beaten. When police found bruises -- Shell claims they were "self-inflicted" -- he was taken into protective custody.
The boy was in such emotional distress -- unable to control his anger and "unable to distinguish fantasy from reality" -- that he was hospitalized. Upon his release, Shell whisked him out of state to keep him from testifying in court.
The stepfather was eventually acquitted of abuse, but none of her children ever lived with Shell and her second husband again.
Shell has been waging an all-out crusade against what she calls "the child protection industry" ever since.
"The federal government pays a bounty to the state of $4,000 for every child adopted," she claimed in an interview, "and this stolen money supports an entire child protection industry. It provides income to state psychiatrists and county departments of social services."
Shell alleged that, motivated by this "easy income," there are times when DHS deliberately leaves children in homes where horrible abuse is taking place because "every now and then they need a grisly headline so they can justify increasing the size and scope of their budget and bureaucracy."
"Whenever I interview the so-called child protection experts," said Shell of DHS social workers, "I ask two questions. One is whether they would die to protect a child. The other is whether they would do their job without being paid for it. The answer is 'No' on both counts. Parents, though, universally say they'd die to protect their child and they don't expect to be paid for being a parent. Which do you most trust?"
Means or ends?
Lawyers, Guardian Ad Litems and caseworkers observe that Shell and Beedy often harm more than help the parents they advocate for.
"All too often, said a Gaurdian Ad Litem who has been witness to Beedy and Shell in action but asked not to be named, "these are parents who are all too ready to follow Beedy's and Shell's lead in blaming DHS for their situation instead of taking responsibility for their problems."
"I think that part of the problem, here," said Commissioner Jeri Howells," is that Commissioner Beedy, Suzanne Shell and the people who support them are less interested in resolving problems than in creating public spectacle. They revel in controversy and public attention. When you enjoy spectacle, that's your goal -- not solving problems.
"Most people realize that problems are complicated and many-sided, and that there's a better way to address them than trying to embarrass, humiliate or insult those who disagree with you.
"I've tried to help many a constituent work through problems with DHS in the 11 years I've been a commissioner -- sometimes to their liking, sometimes not. I would never, though, encourage someone with a problem to blast the other commissioners or the director of DHS, or turn a BOCC meeting into something out of the Jerry Springer Show."
"Complaint is healthy," said Berns. "It serves to create a healthy tension that causes us to look at family issues more closely. Betty Beedy is very articulate and diligent in promoting her understanding of the world.
"She has a very different perception of the world than I do, though."