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Social Workers may be Liable in the Wrongful Death of a Denver, Colorado Child

The death of a child is always a tragedy. However when a child dies under the circumstances of horrific abuse, the tragedy is that much worse. When children are the victims of child abuse, there is no question that those at fault should be held accountable. Normally, those found to be at fault are relatives of the child, or others who have had close contact with the child. But, in the case of the death of a Denver, Colorado child, the people at fault may be two social workers.

According to the Denver Post, just this week, U.S. District Judge William J. Martínez, in a ruling which denied a motion to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit filed against two Denver social service workers by the child’s estate and his biological parents determined that he will allow the wrongful death lawsuit to proceed against the two Denver social service workers for failing to prevent the starvation death of a 7 year old boy in 2007.

This tragic story began in March 2007, when a teacher’s aide reported that the 7 year old boy, Chandler Grafner, had a swollen ear and other bruises. Chandler told the aide that Jon Phillips, Chandler’s foster father, had put him in a shower and slapped him repeatedly. The aide reported the suspected abuse to a school administrator who called police. The Denver Department of Human Services conducted an investigation based on the allegations, but found the allegation unfounded. Two months later, Chandler was sealed in a closet and left to starve in his own urine and feces by his foster parents, Jon Phillips, 26, and his 22-year-old live-in girlfriend Sarah Berry.

The Denver Post reports that the wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Chandler’s mother, Christina Grafner, and his father, Joshua Norris. Christina Grafner lost custody of the Chandler after she was charged with neglect one year before his death. Phillips was Christina Grafner’s former boyfriend. Chandler was in Phillips custody because the Jefferson County Department of Human Services had placed Chandler in Phillips’ custody.

As a result of Chandler’s death, as reported by the Denver Post, Phillips was sentenced to life in prison without parole after being convicted of first-degree murder in 2008. Berry agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and received a 48-year sentence with a possibility of parole after 32 years. Despite their convictions, neither have offered explanations for their actions.

It is clear that Phillips and Berry were responsible for the horrible death of Chandler, but the question raised by the lawsuit brought by Chandler’s biological parents is whether two social works, charged with the protection of Chandler, are responsible for his death as well. The two social workers who were supervising Chandler’s case before his death are Margaret Booker and Mary Peagler, supervisors with the child welfare division of the Denver Department of Human Services. According to the Denver Post, at the time of Chandler’s death, Booker was responsible for investigating claims related to child maltreatment and deciding whether further investigation was warranted, and Peagler was in charge of Chandler’s case file.

In their motion to dismiss, Booker and Peagler alleged that the Jefferson County Department of Human Services was legally responsible for Chandler’s care, and thus his death, because it was that agency that initially placed him in the care of Phillips, who abused him. However, Judge Martínez denied the motion to dismiss, and disagreed with the defendants claim that they were not responsible for Chandler’s death. The Denver Post reports that in his opinion, Judge Martines wrote: “Chandler died from starvation and dehydration and, at the time of his death was twenty pounds underweight for his age. These injuries, by their nature, occur over a period of time. Had Defendants property exercised their professional judgment in response to the April 17, 2007, referral, these injuries may well have been avoided.”

Previously, a ruling had been handed down dismissing this wrongful death case against the Denver Department of Human Service and the Jefferson County Department of human Service based on government immunity. However, Judge Martinez’s recent ruling has paved the way to a jury trial against the Booker and Peagler.

The question of whether these two social workers were indeed responsible for the death of 7 year old Chandler Grafner is one for the jury. But, as a Georgia attorney who routinely helps families through the difficult task of seeking justice for the death of a family member, I sincerely hope that those responsible for the wrongful death of this young child are held accountable.