BRIGHTON, Colo. - A judge blasted the Adams County Human Services Department Thursday for failing to protect 22-month-old Michael Ryan Harris, who was brutally beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend in 2011.
Judge Chris Melonakis sentenced the boyfriend, 33-year-old Donald Scarlett, to 42 years in prison for the toddler's horrific death. A jury found Scarlett guilty of Child Abuse Resulting in Death and Reckless Manslaughter. Scarlett had earlier been charged with first-degree murder.
Before he handed down the sentence, Melonakis heaped criticism on county human services officials, blaming them for an "appalling" failure to protect the "defenseless child."
The judge said there were "red flags" throughout the toddler's case files. He said they were red flags that Human Services ignored.
"Frankly, I think somebody should be taking them before a Grand Jury to try to find out if their conduct was reckless enough to merit criminal prosecution," Melonakis said. "It was that serious."
Michael had been removed from his mother's care by social workers because of her past neglect, lying and drug use. Human Services then returned Michael and his 3-year-old brother back to their mom.
Melonakis said social workers knew about a suspicious head injury the older brother suffered just three days before Michael's death, but they did not bother to examine Michael for possible abuse. If they had done their job, the judge said, social workers could have easily seen the toddler had several prior injuries and removed him from the home.
"This is a case where the ongoing (social workers), their supervisors and the Adams County Social Services Department were directly, causally responsible for the death of this child," the judge said.
"Michael Harris never had a chance in life. As a system, we had an obligation to give him a chance in life. It's appalling the level of neglect from the state. It transcends the boundaries of human decency," Melonakis said.
The judge said Human Services officials appear more concerned about protecting themselves from a potential lawsuit over their mishandling of the boy's death.
He said they have a bureaucratic ability to hide behind privacy laws and privilege, and to cover their tracks.
"They know the press is going to go away," he said. "The story doesn't have legs for five years. Judges get rotated out of Division, so (they) can come in with a new judge and give him a smiley face and convince him that they're doing their job. Administrative reviews take years and years and children die, but bureaucrats still have their jobs. That's the way it works. That's the way the system in this state is set up."
Adams County Human Services Department released this statement:
"The death of a child is always a horrific and tragic occurrence. We are deeply saddened by Michael’s death. We respectfully disagree with Judge Melonakis’ statement and believe his comments are unfortunate. Child welfare cases like this one involve many professionals who must make decisions based upon the information available to them. Decisions regarding placement of children are made by a team, including the Juvenile Court. Due to issues of confidentiality, we are unable to provide further details about the case."
Before Scarlett was sentenced, his mother pleaded with the judge for leniency.
A tearful Lori Ramirez told the judge, "Donald has been a big, loving and caring man. He raised so many children. He's just a wonderful son as well."
But the judge called attention to the slain toddler's injuries, including his pancreas, which was ripped in half.
"The force used to cause that type of injury had to be tremendous," Melonakis said.
Michael died February 2011 of catastrophic brain, spinal and abdominal injuries a day after Scarlett, who was babysitting, called the boy's mother at work to say Michael wasn't breathing.
"This is a crime that shocks and offends," said prosecutor J.P. Moore. "It almost defies our comprehension, except the problem is we know that it happened."
Michael's mother, Roseanna Key, was sentenced in February to 16 years in prison after pleading guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death.