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DENVER - A months-long CALL7 investigation into failures by Denver's Department of Human Services has uncovered a heinous case of child abuse that occurred despite warning signs apparently ignored by the department.
In October 2010, the department placed Tiercel Duerson’s son in his custody. Duerson had served time for sexually abusing the boy's sibling in 2005 and completed parole and treatment just two months prior to the placement.
DDHS had removed the boy and his siblings from their mother's home months before, when he was 12 and was showing signs of mental illness. Regina Garcia admits at the time, she couldn't control her son, and was neglecting him, as well as the rest of her children.
"He was being abusive toward his sisters. He kept telling me he was hearing voices," she said. "He started getting into drugs and drinking, and I tried my hardest with him."
The department initially sent Garcia's son for mental health treatment at Shiloh House, and started looking for a placement for his youngest sister.
"They didn't give her to your former husband?" CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia asked Garcia.
"No, no," she said. Garcia said her youngest daughter's caseworker knew Duerson was a convicted sex offender.
"And she wasn't going to give your daughter to him," Ferrugia said.
"No," said Garcia.
Yet Duerson's sex abuse conviction did not deter her son’s caseworker.
"They decided for him to be with his dad," Garcia said. "I was saying I didn't think it was a good idea for them to put him with his dad, knowing he's a sex offender."
Garcia said her older daughter, a victim of Duerson's abuse, echoed her concerns in a meeting with DDHS.
"That he would be better off with Mom, because Dad is a child molestor, is what she said," said Garcia.
But Garcia said DDHS employees didn't listen.
"They're like, 'Well, he only did it one time, and he preferred little girls,'" she said.
"That's what they told you?" Ferrugia asked?
"Yeah," Garcia said.
Garcia's son spent more than a year placed in his father's home, until November 2011. Internal DDHS records and juvenile court reports obtained through Garcia show the department was repeatedly notified of safety concerns during that time.
Department documents show in March of 2011, an employee at the boy's school reported he was "fearful," afraid that Duerson was "going to go back to his old ways," and believed his father was "back to using drugs and alcohol."
Yet DDHS told the judge overseeing the boy's case that his "family reports that [he] is growing into a happy and health teenage … [he] continues to flourish in Mr. Duerson's home."
The boy also reported his father hit him "with a mop or broom stick" because he didn't finish his chores.
And his mother reported that, when he arrived for his visits with her, her son "often smells bad and his clothing is unclean."
Even more concerning, in August, the caseworker herself reported she had not been able to contact Duerson, and didn't see his son for a month prior, writing, "Mr. Duerson's communication with this worker has subsided. This worker went a period of time not being able to contact Mr. Duerson and this worker was unable to complete a face to face contact with [Duerson's son] for the month of July."
Yet the boy remained in his care.
Dr. Jerry Yager, PsyD, is the Director of Programs for the Denver Child Advocacy Center and has worked with child victims of trauma and abuse for three decades.
Yager was not involved in the case of Garcia's son, but said whenever a child is placed in the home a convicted sex offender, a high level of supervision is essential.
"It was a high-risk placement to begin with, and so immediately, it should have said there's a red flag here," Yager said. "Anything that would occur, like missed appointments, not following through on calls, a report from a school that something is not -- should trigger a red flag that this child is in a high-risk situation, we need to respond to that. In this case it didn't."
In fact, it wasn't until another county received reports of abuse of other children then living in Duerson's home, and removed them, that DDHS finally removed Duerson's son. Duerson again went to jail for child abuse.
"The father's predation involved him compelling both of his sons in the home, an older son and a younger son to both perform sex acts with the father and to perform sex acts with each other," said Jordan Factor, an attorney with Denver law firm Allen & Vellone, who is representing Garcia and her son in a federal lawsuit against DDHS.
Factor said the department violated the boy's right to be kept safe from harm.
"Here we have a man who committed sexual assaults on one of his children and had completed his probation two months earlier and was now being given another one of his children to have in his home," said Factor. "That's outrageous."
Duerson's son was sent to mental health treatment and therapy, and was finally able to share only this year the full extent of the abuse. Now 17 years old, he has walked away from his mental health program and is on the run, occasionally contacting his mother from an anonymous phone number.
"He tells me, 'I'm okay. Don't worry about me,'' said Garcia. "I says, 'Son, you need to turn yourself in and do the right thing. I want you home.'"
Duerson is already in jail for failure to register as a sex offender and is now the subject of an active criminal investigation by the Wheat Ridge Police Department. An internal DDHS report from May shows his son's complaint of sexual abuse was confirmed by the department, and names Duerson as the perpetrator.
"The system's not doing their job, they're saying they're protecting kids when they're not," said Garcia.
Officials at DDHS did not address specifics in the case, instead providing details on the department's standard policy for parents who have sexual offenses on their record. A written statement did not say whether DDHS had followed that policy in this case.
The DDHS caseworker and supervisor responsible for placing Duerson's son in his home are still with the department, and still making decisions about child placement. Sources familiar with DHS caseloads say the caseworker currently has a full caseload, and still reports to the same supervisor, along with four other caseworkers.