News 5 Guardians

Oct 13, 2013 10:41 PM by Andy Koen

News 5 Guardians: Abuse case prompts state review

PUEBLO - They suffered burns and broken bones in a shocking case of child abuse in Pueblo County and News 5 Investigates wanted to know who was looking out for the children.

Deputies arrested the children's adoptive aunt, 39-year-old Ofelia Melendrez-Agustin, and her husband, 45-year-old Eliazar Dolores Ramos, last month. The pair are being held on a million dollars bond each at the Pueblo County Jail for felony child abuse charges.

Court records show hospital and daycare workers alerted the Pueblo County Department of Social Services of the signs of abuse at least three previous times before the kids were finally removed from the home.

Department Director Tim Hart couldn't comment directly on the case because of confidentiality laws. However, News 5 Investigates dug deeper and learned a state oversight body known as the Office of Colorado's Child Protection Ombudsman was called to investigate a safety issue connected to the case.

The staff at the Boone Head Start first called social services July 27, 2012 when a child came to school with cuts and bruises. To explain the injuries, the aunt told deputies the child hit their head their on the headboard of a bed and that a bottle of bleach fell on their foot.

Emergency room nurses at St. Mary Corwin Hospital called the Pueblo Police August 5, 2012 when a child had came in with a broken femur. A full body scan was performed at the request of a social services caseworker and the X-ray showed the child had a previously untreated broken arm.

Melendrez Agustin told officers the child had fallen off a slide and that she was unaware of the broken arm.

Sheriff's deputies were call to the hospital again on December 31, 2012 when a child was admitted with a blistering burn on his or her face. Melendrez explained that she had put the child in an empty bathtub and stepped out for toothpaste. She said an older sibling poured hot water on the child.

On March 11, three children between the ages of 2 and 9 were removed from the home after one of them suffered four inch burn across their bottom.

Melendrez blamed that injury on the bleach she reportedly used wash the stroller the child slept in. A doctor at St. Mary Corwin told the detective he believed the injury was thermal burn, not a chemical burn.

On May 31, the children were interviewed at the Pueblo Child Advocacy Center. A sibling used a doll to show investigators that their their brother or sister had been set on a hot stove. The child told investigators it was "Eliazar" who had put the child on the burner.

Social Services Director Hart said federal statute requires his agency to walk a razor's edge by both keeping children safe and keeping them in their homes whenever possible. He added removing children from any family is traumatizing and should only be done in life or death situations.

"I think system is really sensitive to try to minimize that trauma that the children can be; so we can keep them with their family, meet their cultural needs and at the same time put some interventions to protect them, that's ultimately what we need to do," Hart said.

In general, Hart said case workers will teach parents better coping skills, offer them mental health treatment or other interventions.

Nevertheless, someone close to the case was concerned enough about the way it was handled to call the Ombudsman.

"This was a serious situation and needed to be brought to the attention of state social services and also Pueblo Social Services," said Ombudsman Dennis Goodwin.

Goodwin's investigation will not be made public until after the criminal case against Melendrez-Agustin and Dolores Ramos is completed. However, he believes the safety issue brought to his attention was quickly addressed.

"For me, it's a good example of how this can work, how this should work," Goodwin said of his investigation.

Hart says he welcomes the ombudsman's input.

"Everybody wants our system to get better, we want our system to get better and to have this outside entity who can meet that need, I think is a positive thing."

The ombudsman reviewed 275 cases statewide last year. Of those, seven occurred in Pueblo County. The ombudsman program was created by lawmakers in 2010 specifically to improve the state social services system for the benefit of victims of child abuse.

Anyone can file a complaint with them for any reason at any time. Visit their website protectcoloradochildren.org to learn more.

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