As usual, the Colorado Springs apartment where Michael DeRossett was living with a couple he met in Texas and their three children was filthy.
Dog feces dotted the carpet and lurked in the piles of clothes on the children’s bedroom floor — where 10-year-old Ethan preferred to sleep since the dogs had torn his mattress apart, leaving the springs nearly exposed.
On this particular summer day, the family patriarch, Brian — who had a hair-trigger temper — was angry because 13-year-old Emily wouldn’t pick up a sock that was covered in feces.
So he grabbed it himself and forced it into her mouth.
That’s how DeRossett remembers the incident, and how another family acquaintance, Tara Saunders, says Emily related it to her. It was one of many instances when Brian verbally and physically abused the children in his care, according to multiple people who knew the family well.
Both DeRossett and Saunders said they described the “poop sock” incident to a caseworker from El Paso County’s Department of Health Services. They said they also took the opportunity to report other instances when Brian took out his anger on the children in his care — like when he chucked a water bottle at Ethan, leaving him with a black eye, or when he’d call Emily cruel names and threaten to kick her out of the house.
DeRossett also had pictures of the filthy conditions, and a recording of a conversation allegedly with Brian, in which DeRossett can be heard suggesting positive reinforcement might be helpful for Emily, who is Brian’s stepdaughter, and for Ethan and 8-year-old Hannah, Brian’s children with his wife, Alicia.
“She just keeps running her mouth, and running her mouth, and just ... making people even ... hotter at her than what they already are,” another man replies, apparently referring to Emily. “She won’t shut up.”
(The Indy attempted to contact Brian and Alicia, leaving a message for Brian with his brother and via Facebook. Neither message was returned. Alicia did answer a phone call, but upon hearing our questions, began to babble incoherently before hanging up.)
Despite the concerns of multiple witnesses, and apparently several reports, these three kids fell through the cracks of a system designed to protect them, and are likely still facing the same level of abuse and neglect in Texas, where the family moved when they left the Springs.
Odds are, they aren’t alone — more than half of reports to the El Paso County DHS are simply “screened out.”
El Paso County handles a higher volume of child protection referrals than any other county in the state — by a lot. In 2017, the county fielded 19 percent more reports than the next highest contender, Denver County.
As of Nov. 19, the approximately 250 staff members of El Paso County DHS’ Children, Youth and Family Services had fielded more than 17,000 reports of child abuse and/or neglect in 2018, according to data provided by spokesperson Kristina Iodice.
That’s an average of 68 per staff member.
Of those, DHS designated just 6,400 for assessment.
As of September, DHS had determined that 1,300 referrals for the year met criteria for abuse or neglect. Just more than half of those resulted in a child being taken from a home.
For confidentiality reasons, the department can’t comment on specific cases. However, Iodice and Child Protection Manager Kristal Grint did shed some light on the referral process, and what might have occurred in this particular case.
First, Grint says, DHS doesn’t have the authority to enter a home without the owner’s permission — and thus may not have seen the condition of the apartment.
“We are not law enforcement. Even law enforcement can’t just go into people’s houses, right, unless they get a court order or warrant or something,” Grint says. “So that can be a barrier a lot of times.”
Second, what constitutes neglect differs depending on the ages of children. “If you have maybe rotting food on the ground and you have a 14-year-old, that would look really different than you have a toddler who’s walking around, and they might not know not to eat that,” Grint says.
Each report of child abuse goes through an initial review process that involves a minimum of two certified child welfare workers. Some calls, including duplicates, those that don’t include a child’s name, and those that don’t refer to child abuse or neglect, are screened out.
Next, Grint says, caseworkers examine “risk factors, complicating factors, previous danger or harm, DHS history, criminal history, support systems the family have, what’s really working well in the family, and then make a determination based off of the information gathered.”
Once a case is assigned for assessment, caseworkers have 60 days to determine whether to take action. In some cases, that may be counseling or resources for parents. In others, DHS can remove a child from a home to live with a family member, a family friend or in foster care.
Depending on the report submitter’s relationship with the child, DHS can provide them with limited information on how the case is evolving. But for confidentiality reasons, caseworkers can’t always share details — which led DeRossett to become frustrated.
“We want the public to make calls; we want them to make referrals,” Iodice says. “However, just when someone makes a report, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll know what we’re doing on our end, unfortunately.”
Michael DeRossett and Brian were once friends.
Brian pleaded guilty to several theft charges in Dallas County, including a third-degree felony in 2004. In 2010, a DWI landed him in jail for 180 days with 18 months probation. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 2002.
DeRossett says he and Brian met in a diversion court for drug offenders in Dallas County. The Indy was not able to verify this because the names of those who went through the program are sealed, as it allows them to expunge certain offenses from their records.
“Over a period of time you go through a program like that, you’re so closely knit with everyone in your program that you really get to know them like a family,” DeRossett says. “They become a secondary family to you.”
So, when DeRossett moved to Colorado last year for a medical treatment, he and his wife, Heather DeRossett, moved in with Brian and Alicia.
Prior to the poop-sock incident, there were plenty of signs Brian was out of control, they say. Heather and Michael both recounted an incident earlier this year when the police were called after a fight erupted between Michael and Brian because, they say, Brian yelled at Heather’s young son for crying and threw him into another room.
Police records show that officers did visit the apartment on April 21 on a “family disturbance” call. It was one of 12 calls to the apartment, and one of more than five dozen to the apartment complex, in the past two years.
Additionally, DeRossett and the other witnesses believe at least three reports were made to DHS about Brian’s abusive behavior in summer 2018, including two that came after a worried DeRossett collected the voice recording, along with photos and videos of the conditions in the apartment, showing the feces on the floor, meat left out in the kitchen, piles of dirty laundry and chewed-up mattresses.
One report, oddly, was filed by DeRossett’s friend, Charlie Ewalt, who was living in Texas at the time. Ewalt says he barely knew the family, but was appalled by what DeRossett described to him over the phone.
“I’m like, ‘Wow… why don’t you report them to [DHS]?’ But he was living there in the home with them at the time,” Ewalt says. “And he was doing everything with his phone and he didn’t have a computer, and I’m like ... ‘Just text me the videos and I’ll file a report,’ so I did.”
Ewalt sent some of the videos in a July 25 email to El Paso County DHS that he later forwarded to the Indy, along with follow-up emails he sent on Aug. 1 and Aug. 9.
When El Paso County DHS contacted the family after Ewalt’s report, DeRossett says his roommate was furious with him, believing he had been the one to file it. So, DeRossett decided to also file one himself. DeRossett provided the Indy with screenshots of several emails and texts allegedly with DHS caseworkers in late July and early August.
The reports resulted in a few visits from caseworkers, DeRossett says, and records from the Colorado Springs Police Department show that police conducted a welfare check at the apartment July 31. But ultimately, Brian was never charged, and acquaintances say the family moved back to Texas a few weeks later.
“I will see if I can have a welfare check in Texas,” the caseworker wrote in a screen-shot message to DeRossett. “I am not promising anything.”
But as far as DeRossett knows, that was it. DHS doesn’t release records on child abuse and neglect.
DeRossett isn’t the only one to claim to have witnessed Brian’s abuse — and he and Ewalt likely weren’t the first to report it to DHS. Tyrone Seymour says he once considered himself a friend of Brian and Alicia.
He met them in 2011, he says, and lived with them for two years in Arlington, Texas. At the time, he was dating Heather DeRossett (now Michael’s wife).
Life with Brian and Alicia was a “nightmare,” Seymour says.
“When he would get drunk it would be beating up on ... [the children, Ethan and Emily] — and then he would — I don’t know how many times I’ve pulled him off Alicia,” he says. “He would call [Emily] a little whore. ... A lot of the times it was verbal, but he, if she was to really push his buttons, it would be physical.”
“I said, ‘What’s that from?’ and he was just like, ‘That little son of a bitch has got to learn to listen,’ or something to that effect,” Seymour says.
Seymour and Heather DeRossett say that they believe the child’s teacher reported the black eye to DHS. Brian went back to Texas soon after, while Alicia moved into Murray Hill Apartments with the children. After a few months, Brian moved back to Colorado Springs, Seymour and Heather DeRossett say.
Another former “friend” of Brian and Alicia’s, Tara Saunders, who is the mother of some of Tyrone’s children, says she also witnessed Brian abuse the kids while she and her 13-year-old daughter lived with the family during the summer of 2017.
She says she was present when Brian threw a water bottle at Ethan, giving him a black eye. While Alicia would sometimes spank the children, Saunders says, she was rarely physically abusive. That fits with what other family acquaintances said about Alicia — that she was rarely a perpetrator of the abuse herself, but sometimes enabled Brian’s actions.
Brian was a different story: “Yeah, he was abusive almost on the daily,” Saunders says. “... He was like that whether he was drinking or not. It would just get worse when he was drinking.”
DeRossett says when he reported Brian, he provided the DHS caseworker with the names and contact information for Saunders, Seymour, Seymour’s son Colby, Heather DeRossett and Alicia’s former employers.
Saunders is the only one who says she spoke to the caseworker.
Colorado’s definitions of abuse and neglect are buried in Title 19 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. In summary, “abuse” or “child abuse or neglect” is “an act or omission ... that threatens the health or welfare of a child.” Among the possible indicators, according to state statute: evidence of skin bruising, bleeding or malnutrition; unlawful sexual behavior; parents’ failure to provide adequate food, clothing or shelter; “emotional abuse,” defined as “an identifiable and substantial impairment of the child’s intellectual or psychological functioning or development or a substantial risk of impairment”; or the presence of a controlled substance where a child resides.
By these strict guidelines, it’s possible that the caseworkers who visited Brian and Alicia didn’t have enough substantiated evidence to continue pursuing the case.
But according to the state’s Social Services Rules, certain red flags, or risk factors, can also warrant closer examination. Those include family history with the child welfare system, a child’s vulnerability or a criminal history related to child abuse and/or neglect.
Given that multiple people reported Brian in a single month, the case should have been higher on DHS’ priority list. And his criminal history, while it doesn’t seem to include abuse charges, appears relevant given that Saunders and DeRossett say they told caseworkers that Brian’s abuse was tied to his substance use.
Theoretically, Grint says, not referring to a particular case — if someone has multiple DUIs and a report mentions alcohol use, that would “absolutely” be a risk factor.
But even with those red flags, El Paso County was limited the moment the family crossed state lines. Once a family leaves the state, if DHS does not have custody of the children, it no longer has jurisdiction.
“We can make a report to law enforcement and have them do a welfare check, or make a report to the social service agency,” Grint says.
It’s also possible that challenges facing child protection workers in the county and statewide could have also played a role in Brian’s case.
In a letter dated Oct. 19, the Colorado Human Services Directors Association, comprised of DHS directors from every county in the state, sent a strong message to state officials: The state’s system for protecting children “cannot be trusted”.
Whatever the excuse, the fact remains that three children are still living with a man whom multiple witnesses say is abusive — despite several adults’ attempts to secure help from an agency charged with protecting them. And they surely aren’t the only ones.
Risky businessAfter a Denver Post and 9 News investigation exposed weaknesses in Colorado’s child protection system, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a series of reforms in 2013. One key part of his plan was the Trails Modernization project, an effort begun in 2015 to update the computer system caseworkers use to help them process referrals of child abuse and neglect. The updates went live this June, accompanied by a wealth of issues that county directors wrote were “crippling our work and putting the safety of children and families at risk.”
At the time the letter was written, counties had submitted help-desk tickets for more than 3,000 bugs, says Julie Krow, executive director of El Paso County DHS. Frighteningly, the system wasn’t properly scoring risk assessments — meaning that, for example, a family assessed as “high risk” could show up in the system as “moderate risk.” Krow says the problems were exacerbated around the end of September and beginning of October. Since caseworkers have 60 days to complete an assessment, Brian’s family’s case would probably have closed around that time.
Though the risk assessment issue still isn’t fixed, this month Krow said state officials are responding well to county concerns.
“Really, I’m confident that our staff were able to get their work done and do what was needed,” she said. “It just impacted their ability to do things as quickly as they normally would because there were challenges with the system. And that’s improving now. I won’t say that it’s completely fixed, but things are definitely moving in the right direction.”