Saturday, December 10, 2011

Denver Human Services defends two caseworkers sued child Chandler Grafner's starvation death

By Felisa Cardona

Two social workers who were supervising 7-year-old Chandler Grafner's case before he starved to death are still working for Denver Human Services.

Margaret Booker and Mary Peagler are supervisors with the child welfare division of DHS, said agency spokeswoman Revekka Balancier.

Booker supervises the foster care and adoptive family recruitment and support efforts, and Peagler supervises interns and the family visitation program.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez denied a motion to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against them by Chandler's estate and his biological parents.

The judge noted that the neglect of Chandler by social services was "conscience-shocking" and that a complaint of child abuse made by a teacher's aide a month before the boy's May 6, 2007, death wasn't thoroughly explored by DHS.

Balancier defended the caseworkers, saying DHS is made up of hundreds of caseworkers and support staff who make it their life's work to help keep children safe.

"The death of a child at the hands of an abuser is a terrible and tragic loss for our community and is deeply felt by every member of our staff," she wrote in an e-mail. "We have confidence that each of our workers performs their duties with grave attention to the safety needs of children, compassion for families who are in crisis and experienced decision making in the complex task of making sure our children's needs are being met."

At the time of Chandler's death, Booker was responsible for investigating claims related to child maltreatment and deciding whether further investigation was warranted. Peagler was in charge of Chandler's case file.

In their motion to dismiss, they claimed that the Jefferson County Department of Human Services was legally responsible for Chandler's care because that agency initially placed him with stepfather Jon Phillips, who abused him.

Martinez disagreed that DHS caseworkers were not directly responsible for Chandler's care.

The judge cited a previous 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling regarding a wrongful-death lawsuit against a caseworker in New Mexico who was in charge of overseeing the adoption of a girl with severe spina bifida.

The 3-year-old girl, Grace Bogey, was beaten to death weeks after her adoption and complaints raised by her nurse, who suspected she was being abused.

In that case, the 10th Circuit overturned a lower court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the girl's caseworker who failed to conduct a home visit when the girl's grandfather moved in and the living situation changed.

Martinez said that case was "remarkably similar" to Chandler's case, though he noted that in his view the Denver case was even more egregious in that DHS received complaints from Chandler's school and failed to investigate.

"Chandler died from starvation and dehydration and, at the time of his death was twenty pounds underweight for his age," Martinez wrote in his opinion. "These injuries, by their nature, occur over a period of time. Had Defendants property exercised their professional judgement in response to the April 17, 2007, referral, these injuries may well have been avoided."

Though Martinez paved the way for a jury trial against the caseworkers, a previous ruling dismissed the case against Denver Human Services and the Jefferson County Department of Human Services, based on government immunity.

Chandler was living with Phillips and his girlfriend, Sarah Berry, at the time of his death. Phillips was sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder, and Berry is serving a 48-year prison sentence for second-degree murder.


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