Social Services falls short: Help request hindered by errors Officials say follow-up would not have saved Tanner
By Amy Hebert and Christine Reid, Camera Staff Writers
Daily Camera, November 23, 2003

This is a plea for help.

Tanner Dowler's paternal grandparents asked for help point-blank when they sent a letter to the Boulder County Department of Social Services on Aug. 26, 2002.

Their grandson had been born two weeks earlier, but they didn't know where he lived or how his parents could care for him when they couldn't even support themselves.

How will they feed this baby? How will they wash his clothes? How will they afford to raise him? We just don't see it happening unless they get the proper help.

Joseph and Audra Dowler never got that help.

And Woody and Lea Dowler didn't get to meet their grandson until he lay in a Denver hospital, dying from a brain injury his father is accused of inflicting.

The taxpayer-funded Department of Social Services is looked at as the foundation of a community's protection for those who can't protect themselves.

But more than half of the referrals the agency receives are not pursued, often because they don't rise to a level that allows the government to intrude in families' lives.

Two typos and a decision not to call Joseph and Audra's employer ended Social Services' brief efforts to follow up on the letter from Tanner's grandparents.

More than a year later, nobody can say whether the department could have made a difference in the infant's life.

About 2,000 of the 3,500 referrals Boulder County Social Services receives annually get screened-out, often because they don't rise to the level of the law for social services to get involved, said Allen Pollack, one of the agency's two administrators.

The government should interfere when a child's life is at risk, but it cannot trample on a person's civil liberties, Pollack said. The line between the two is often difficult to discern.

Corporal punishment is legal unless a bruise is left, and reported concerns about parents' ability to supervise or support their kids fall into gray areas.

Some can be referred to civil court or police. But others, such as complaints that someone's grandchildren are fed too many hot dogs, don't rise to a level that warrants follow-up.

"If there is no actual allegation, just concerns expressed, we may call family and ask if they would like services," Pollack said. "If they say no, which happens often, there's nothing legally we can do."

Statewide, nearly 31,000 cases were investigated by Colorado's child-protective services in 2001. One-sixth were determined to reveal evidence of abuse and neglect.

Chris Jeffers, a Boulder defense lawyer who handles dependency and neglect cases, said many of the caseworkers he knows are competent and dedicated to their jobs, but no one is immune to mistakes.

"We're dealing with a system of human beings. People are going to screw up in a human system," he said. "That's not to say we shouldn't try."

Tanner's grandparents say Social Services should have done more.

Joined by Audra's parents, Paul and Sharyl Riley, the Dowlers filed a letter of intent in January to sue Boulder County for dropping the ball.

"An innocent, helpless child is dead because too many people in too many places failed him," Paul Riley said.

But Christine Highnam, director of Boulder County Social Services, said there's no reason to believe their intervention would have saved Tanner, who passed a well-baby check two days after the letter was sent.

Since the letter didn't contain specific allegations of abuse or concern for Tanner's physical well-being, Highnam said the department decided not to pursue Joseph and Audra by contacting their employer, the Pizza Hut in Lafayette.

Parents have sometimes lost their jobs after social workers showed up, Highnam said, and the department needs to balance such considerations when deciding whether to pursue a complaint.

"When you're involved so much with human beings, there's just so many intangibles, so many judgment calls," she said. "You're not going to prevent every tragedy."

A state review of how Boulder County Social Services handled the case, however, found "critical errors and serious gaps."

The Social Services worker would have found Joseph and Audra in the department's database if Joseph hadn't been spelled wrong and Audra hadn't been entered under her maiden name. And when the case was dropped, Social Services was legally required to notify Woody and Lea Dowler. The couple never heard anything.

Highnam said everyone has been trained in those procedures since Tanner's death, and the department has created a double-review system for any dropped referral.

A supervisor and administrator now must review every decision to stop pursuing a case.

Patrice Kenner Redearth knows there are holes in the social services net. As a former Longmont police officer, she has seen them firsthand.

"There's always been a missing link there," she said.

Several government entities have voluntary programs aimed at prevention, but social workers, courts and police often aren't involved until it is too late, Redearth said.

Hoping to change that, she is developing a nonprofit organization whose volunteers would visit high-risk families at home and in the hospital to let them know help is available.

The group won't be restricted by state budget woes or government red tape, and parents may be more willing to accept help from citizen volunteers, Redearth said.

"They're not dealing with the system," she said. "When you say social services or you say law enforcement, there are all kinds of flags. Hopefully we can break that down."

Redearth said she hopes to have a pilot program in place in Boulder and Weld counties by January.

"If we could save one baby, we've met our goal," she said.

Camera Staff Writer Kate Larsen contributed to this report.

Contact Amy Hebert at or (303) 473-1329 or Christine Reid at or (303) 473-1355.

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