DENVER - A city attorney representing the Denver Department of Human Services sent 9NEWS a letter this week warning reporter Chris Vanderveen and News Director Patti Dennis to avoid releasing confidential information stemming from DDHS's involvement in a high-profile child abuse case.
The letter, signed by attorney Barbara Shaklee, warned of criminal prosecution should 9NEWS air any "confidential" information relating to children taken from Wayne Sperling's and Lorinda Bailey's Denver apartment. The letter arrived a day after a 9NEWS phone call to a spokesperson for DDHS informing her that 9NEWS was planning on doing a story involving the work of former DDHS employee Nathan O'Neal.
O'Neal worked at DDHS between 2007 and 2013, and was personally involved as a case worker on the Sperling-Bailey case after Denver prosecutors charged the couple with misdemeanor child abuse in 2006. Denver court records say three children, the oldest being 4, were found living in filth inside the couple's apartment near 18th and Emerson in October of that year. In addition, court records say, at the time the 4-year-old could only grunt when police tried to talk with her. O'Neal resigned earlier this year after being warned he faced termination according to records provided by DDHS.
O'Neal was instrumental in helping remove the three children from Sperling's and Bailey's home in 2009. His direct involvement in that particular case ended then, but he told 9NEWS he continued to issue recommendations at the matter in the years that followed.
This month, Denver prosecutors charged Sperling and Bailey with felony child abuse after, according to court records, police say they found four of their children - between the ages of 2 and 6 - living in filth and unable to effectively communicate. Wayne Sperling, in an interview with 9NEWS, said his children could speak but chose not to speak with representatives for Denver Human Services or the Denver Police Department.
"If I start talking, I'll probably start crying. We're already convicted," Sperling said. "You just can't fight the city, you know."
The case has raised questions over DDHS's involvement in the case. The adoptive mother of two of the three children taken away in 2009, told 9Wants to Know she was deeply concerned when she heard that police believed other children were once again living inside a filthy apartment unable to effectively communicate.
"I didn't know what to think," Meagan said. 9NEWS is not using her last name in order to protect the identity of her adopted children. "Tears started coming down my face, because this was exactly the same thing. It was the same thing. It's the same people."
"I just don't know how this was overlooked," she added. "If you were deemed unfit to parent children and your children are removed due to due process and adopted by some other people, then how are you going to know how to parent [more children] without a lot of support and help?"
9News has continually sought comment from DDHS on the matter, but a spokesperson has repeated her office is unable to comment on specifics due to confidentiality issues.
In the decision to air portions of the interview with O'Neal, 9NEWS and O'Neal believe nothing in his statements should be considered confidential as much of it can be independently verified through court records and other interviews.
Even still, the letter from Shaklee warned of the potential of criminal prosecution should the story involve the release of information "considered confidential under (state) law." The letter suggested any violation of the law would be a "class 1 misdemeanor...punishable, at minimum, by six months imprisonment, or five hundred dollar fine, or both."
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