DENVER -- A Denver attorney filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday challenging a state law that she said protects child welfare workers accused of misconduct.
Jessica Peck, a family law and child welfare attorney, said current law censors her and grieving parents she represents with the credible threat of jail time if they publicly share information about the conduct of child welfare workers that Peck or the parents believe may have contributed to the untimely deaths of young children and teens across Colorado.
Denver civil rights firm Killmer, Lane and Newman filed the lawsuit on Peck's behalf.
Peck told FOX31 that in recent years, she has handled several high-profile cases where she represents parents who have lost their children to murder, suicide or irreversible injury. Peck said she has come into contact with a number of case workers and government workers who work for the Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Protection Services (CPS) system, also known as the Division of Child Welfare.
At the center of her lawsuit, Peck is challenging a Colorado statute intended to protect the privacy of children and parties contacted by CPS in abuse investigations or juvenile court cases alleging dependency and neglect. The same statute also applies to criminal justice decency matters.
In that role, Peck said she has discovered good intentions have given way to a system where CPS has unchecked power in too many child abuse and death cases.
“Every time we lose yet another kid to preventable violence, we must start asking some very serious questions,” said Peck. “Too often, CPS is the only source that gets to decide our answers. The agency operates in darkness, empowered to bully into silence the grieving families, reporters and lawyers who dare to question the agency’s role in any derogatory way.”
Peck's specific concern is that she feels the statute provides no means for parents to reveal information specific to caseworker misconduct, except for limited exceptions, typically only after a child's death by homicide. The statute does not allow for records to be released in cases where a child dies by suicide.
In early 2019, Peck claimed to have discovered misconduct by a caseworker involved in two child fatality cases covered by local and national media. After speaking with a reporter from Westword, Peck received a court order threatening prosecution for any further communications with reporters.
"It was, in fact, only because of this interview that we believe the caseworker in question was removed from the (only still active) case," said Peck. "My client may have lost her child had we not spoken out. The Fourth Estate is critical to protecting my clients' interests and without journalists, we're doomed."
In 2018, 9-year-old Jamel Myles of Denver killed himself. His mom said he was bullied at school after coming out as gay. This past September, a man in Lone Tree killed his 10-year-old son, Ty, after learning Ty’s mother won a custody hearing. DHS was involved in both cases. The families’ attorneys say DHS failed both children.
“It is incredible how covert this agency is and how clandestine they are in terms of producing information,” Peck said.
Peck says DHS reports she reviewed show irregularities. She says the reports reveal when Jamel’s mom asked the state for help, her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“She was going to the front office and begging for help,” Peck said. “She was going to DHS and saying, 'Please help me.'"
The attorney in Ty’s case says DHS never took action against Ty’s father after two schools reported child abuse allegations to the agency. Due to a law-mandated lack of transparency, Ty’s mother didn’t know about the abuse.
Attorney Tom Kelley, who represents Peck, said, "This statute we are attacking is a bureaucrat's dream, shielding those responsible for protection of our children from all meaningful accountability. In the process, it tramples the free speech rights of those who would expose official lapses, incompetence and wrongdoing."
FOX31 has reached out to the Department of Human Services for comment on the lawsuit but has not yet received a response.
FOX31 reached out to the Colorado Attorney General, but we’re told his office cannot comment on pending litigation.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis sent the following statement:
“We can't comment on pending litigation, but know the Governor cares deeply about children safety and the welfare of all Coloradans."