Court approves lawsuit against Denver child protection workers in Chandler Grafner's death

7-year-old Chandler Grafner died at 31 pounds

DENVER - A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that two Denver County child protection workers can face a wrongful-death lawsuit over the starvation death of 7-year-old Chandler Grafner in 2007.

The three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver rejected the two workers' argument that they have immunity from lawsuits, ruling that evidence could prove the workers displayed "a conscience-shocking abdication of duty."

"As a foster child, Chandler relied upon the State and its county departments, via its placement of him in a foster home, for his basic human needs," Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote in the decision.

The federal lawsuit was filed by Grafner's biological mother and father and an administrator of the boy's estate.

On May 6, 2007, Grafner was found in the Denver home of his foster parents, Jon Phillips and his girlfriend Sarah Berry. The boy had been locked in a closet without food or water and the closet was covered with urine and feces, a court said. He was taken to the hospital where he died shortly thereafter.

The 7-year-old weighed only 31 pounds when he died of dehydration and starvation, the coroner said.

Phillips and Berry had been appointed as Grafner's legal guardians.

Phillips was convicted of first-degree murder and 48 years for fatal child abuse and was sentenced to life in prison. Berry pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 48 years in prison.

Over nearly three years, three human services agencies -- in Arapahoe, Jefferson and Denver counties -- "were called upon to investigate possible abuse of Chandler as he transitioned between homes and caretakers," Briscoe said in the ruling.

"Sadly, none prevented his untimely death at the hands of his foster parents," Briscoe wrote.

Between Jan. 17 and April 17, 2007, the Denver Department of Human Services received at least four written complaints about abuse or neglect involving Grafer, a Denver judge found.

On April 17, 2007, school officials said they informed the Denver Human Services that Grafner had not been in school since March 9 and that the school had been unable to reach Grafner's foster parents for weeks, according to court records.

The deaths of Grafner and at least 44 other children being overseen by the Colorado child welfare system over five years led to the creation of a state watchdog program.

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