11 Call for Action Investigation: Law enforcement frustrated by child abuse laws

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EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KKTV) -- Children are being locked up in their own home or found in filthy living conditions. A shocking 11 Call for Action investigation has revealed Colorado parents can't even face jail-time for it. Local law enforcement officers are telling 11 News the law needs to change.

A boy sits curled in the corner of his room with the windows boarded up. Detectives want to change the law for child abuse cases.

11 News obtained a picture of a little boy sitting curled in the corner of his room. We blurred out his face to protect his identity. Officers said they found him locked in his own bedroom with no furniture and the windows were boarded-up. Fountain Police Sgt. Mark Cristiani remembers the case vividly.

"Through interviews of the parents, neighbors and other people that knew this family, it was determined that the kids never were allowed out of that room, only to eat once or twice a day," Sgt. Cristiani told 11 Call for Action investigative reporter Katie Pelton.

His parents never spent a day in jail. "Our hands were tied," said Sgt. Crisitiani. He wished he could have done more, but the law doesn't allow it. According to the police report obtained by 11 News, the parents were charged with only misdemeanor child abuse.

"The Colorado statutes at the time, currently, do not allow us to charge anything but a misdemeanor crime because the children didn't show outward signs of necessarily physical abuse or bruises or broken bones or missing teeth, things like that," said Sgt. Cristiani. "So we're left in Colorado with misdemeanor crimes to be able to charge parents who abuse their children like this."

Other detectives recall similar cases. In 2013, a former Colorado Springs city councilman pleaded guilty to child abuse for leaving his son, who has autism, in deplorable living conditions.

"The Charles Wingate case was one that was brought up by the Colorado Springs Police Department as being one that really shook their conscience. That was one where a child was being left in a basement. It was almost for a year, not really having accessibility to the outside. That child really suffered severely from that," said Janet Huffor, the Chief of Staff at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

Court papers obtained by 11 Call for Action, show Charles Wingate was arrested for allowing a child to dwell in extremely unsanitary conditions. He and his wife got probation. Again, officers could only charge them with misdemeanors. "The child didn't have any broken bones. The child didn't have any serious bodily injury that they're looking for to where you would be able to charge a felony," said Huffor. "So all they were able to charge at that time was a misdemeanor."

Detectives compared cases and realized there is a glaring problem in our community. Many of them had similar stories, like another case out of Falcon. "This particular juvenile was being confined in their room sometimes days at a time and their only recourse to get out of the room was a button, which was fashioned on the inside of a door that was locked from the exterior," said EPSO Detective Jason Darbyshire.

"You hear these very upsetting, disturbing cases where you think that person has to be in prison right now for doing something that egregious and the thing you hear from police officers and deputies and detectives is, 'Well they were served a summons,'" said EPSO Detective Patrick Gallagher. "That summons is the same thing you get for driving with a stolen license plate."

"There's got to be a better way," said Huffor. After hearing all of these cases, she couldn't just stand by. "It's a deep, sick in your stomach kind of feeling that you get and that was exactly what happened when I heard about the couple of cases that we've had here recently," she said.

Now she's fighting for kids and fighting to change the law. Huffor reached out to State Senator Bob Gardner who will be introducing a bill during the next legislative session. "It is going to be changing two pieces in our state statutes," Huffor explained. The bill would change both the child abuse statute and the false imprisonment statute.

"The first one underneath the Child Abuse statute will allow a greater leniency for both medical personnel - for the forensic pediatricians that are dealing with these cases where a child is brought in maybe that has severe bruising but does not reach that standard of serious bodily injury - that they would still be able to make those kind of statements in their report, allowing law enforcement to be able to charge an F-5 felony in that child abuse case."

The second piece also allows a felony charge. "We are making a specific category under the False Imprisonment statute to address those under the age of 18 that are being tied, or locked, or caged, for any long extended period of time," Huffor explained. "The current statute states that for adults it's any period over 12 hours qualifies for that F-5 felony underneath the false imprisonment statute."

At this point, the bill doesn't specify a certain number of hours a child can be locked up. It will likely be decided by state lawmakers.

Huffor is no stranger to the Colorado State Capitol. She has already worked to have five state laws passed. This one hits home. "I am a mother and hearing these types of cases, it affects you," Huffor told Pelton. "If there's nothing else that I have accomplished, this is the one thing that I've got to get accomplished, is this bill."

Opponents are expected to argue parents should be allowed to punish their children as they see fit, or lock them up for their own safety. The detectives told us this bill is meant to go after the extreme cases.

"They're being imprisoned in their own room in a way that the state says we can't do to people who are serving life sentences for murder," said Det. Gallagher. "We have to be able to empower a community and these children to get help."

"Nobody wants to break up a family, but children can't be treated like this," said Sgt. Cristiani.

"I don't have to keep telling that kid, 'There's nothing that can be done for you,'" said Det. Darbyshire. "There is something that can be done and I'm the one that can do it."

In a few weeks, Huffor and the other detectives will drive to Denver to fight for the bill. Reporter Katie Pelton will be there and we will let you know what happens.

What happened to the little boy in the heartbreaking image? He and his siblings were returned to the home with their parents.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office tells us that the meeting between law enforcement agencies that led to this new bill, is part of a new effort to make sure local departments communicate with each other about issues they may all be seeing in their own areas.