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Colorado judge blames social workers for death of toddler beaten by mother's boyfriend

An Adams County judge blamed social workers Thursday for the death of a toddler beaten by his mother's boyfriend, saying the boy had been "failed to death" by authorities.

Judge Chris Melonakis lashed out at the Adams County Department of Human Services from the bench while sentencing the boyfriend, Donald Jean Scarlett, to 42 years in prison. Melonakis said the agency should be taken before a grand jury in the February 2011 death of Michael Harris, who was nearly 2, and that the county had shown "extreme malfeasance."

The judge said social workers returned Michael and his 3-year-old brother to their mother weeks before Michael died, The Denver Post reported (http://bit.ly/XutZQg). He said the county had received reports three days before Michael's death that his older brother had a "suspicious" injury but didn't take him to a doctor or examine Michael for injuries.

"This child was literally failed to death," Melonakis said.

Michael's mother is serving a 16-year sentence after pleading guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death.

Scarlett, 33, initially was charged with murder, but a jury found him guilty of child abuse resulting in death and reckless manslaughter. The judge noted Michael died after a beating so severe it severed the boy's pancreas, ruptured nerve endings in his spine and caused his heart and lungs to stop functioning.

Scarlett's lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, also blamed social workers for Michael's death and pointed out Scarlett had a stable work history and no prior criminal record.

The Adams County Human Services Department issued a statement saying it was deeply saddened by Michael's death and that professionals outside the department also are involved in placing a child.

"We respectfully disagree with Judge Melonakis' statement and believe his comments are unfortunate," the statement said. "Child welfare cases like this one involve many professionals who must make decisions based upon the information available to them."

The agency said decisions regarding child placement "are made by a team, including the Juvenile Court." Department officials declined to comment on the case further, citing confidentiality issues.

Assistant District Attorney Jess Redman said Michael's injuries were among the most violent and severe prosecutors at his office have seen.

"Unfortunately our system was unable to protect the child before his death, but we are gratified that the jury who heard the evidence delivered justice to him in this case," Redman said in a statement.

District attorney spokeswoman Sue Lindsay said rules of conduct prevented prosecutors from commenting on the judge's belief that a grand jury should look into the county's actions.

Michael's death was included in a Denver Post-KUSA-TV series on the 72 children in the state's social service system who died of abuse or neglect between 2007 and 2012.

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Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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