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Dustin Maclean walks with his daughter to a Halloween party last week in Denver. Maclean found out this year that he had a 4-year-old daughter after the girl was the subject of a child abuse and neglect case. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

John Doe is not the father, at least not anymore.

An untold number of kids caught up in Denver’s child welfare system have had a father named John Doe, a practice that went on for decades and made it less likely for children to find permanent homes. When the dad is unknown, so is an entire side of the family that might otherwise step up to care for an abused child.

But the practice of resorting to “John Doe” as a courtroom placeholder has been upended in the last two years, and as a result, Denver County has boosted the number of children who find permanent homes after abuse and neglect.

Four years ago, 59 percent of kids involved in abuse and neglect cases were in permanent homes within one year — either back with a biological parent, a relative or adopted. That means 41 percent were still bouncing through foster homes or at least living unsettled lives.

Now 75 percent of kids have a permanent home within a year.

Under the old system, it would go like this: a child protection caseworker would visit a home without a biological father where abuse or neglect was alleged. If the mother said she did not know who the children’s father was, and there was no father’s name on the birth certificate, the name was recorded as John Doe.

And as Denver County pursued a civil case to determine whether the children were abused and to identify the safest place for them to live — called a dependency and neglect case — court documents would list their father as unknown. The court could terminate John Doe’s parental rights if no one stepped forward after a legal notice about the children was published in a newspaper.

The attorneys who handle child neglect cases in Denver realized the child welfare department needed to do more to find them. They created a new initiative — beginning in 2016 — with a goal of placing more children who have been removed from their homes with relatives, the option most prefered by federal and state child welfare officials.

Denver Human Services communications director Julie Smith summed up the initiative this way: “There is someone out there that is the dad and we should find them.” The women who work in the human services division of the Denver City Attorney’s Office have been calling their project “John Doe is Not the Father.”

“John” because it’s only about 1 percent of the time that the gender roles in this scenario were reversed and the “alias respondent” named in court records was Jane Doe.

Denver’s child welfare division attorneys began to suspect a few years ago that the high number of John Does in their case files had some bearing on the division’s poor record of finding permanent homes for abused and neglected children within the required timeframe of one year.

“The question that we kept asking ourselves was, ‘Why do we keep writing John Doe?’” said Katie Smith, director of the human services section of the Denver City Attorney’s Office. “Are we doing something that allows us to not look for fathers?”

Before the policy shift, a mom accused of abuse or neglect was presented with a frightening, confusing document that spelled out what would happen to her child upon removal from her home — and then demanded, basically, “tell us the name of the child’s father.”

“We didn’t get good information,” Smith said.

Regularly, the document wasn’t even completed and court records would name John Doe. Then, months later sometimes, attorneys would find out a child whose father was “John Doe” mentioned to their caseworker that they missed their paternal grandmother, who lived three doors down.

Denver human services attorneys rewrote the “relative affidavit” into a more thorough questionnaire that seeks the names of not only the father, but any relatives or friends who are part of the child’s life. It asks for a drawing of a family tree and a list of everyone who is in the family’s support circle.

The county, in July 2016, also created a “parentage affidavit” — a document to establish the legal parents. It’s pretty blunt:

It states: “I had sex with the following man/men 45 days before/after conception: (use additional paper if necessary, but included ALL men including the man you believe to be the father of the child).”

Dustin Maclean walks with his daughter to a Halloween party last week in Denver. Maclean found out this year that he had a 4-year-old daughter after the girl was the subject of a child abuse and neglect case. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The affidavit also asks about men who have “acted as the father to the child.”

The two documents, along with a culture shift in the city attorney’s office regarding how to talk to potential fathers, is the reason more children are finding permanent homes, attorney Smith said. Of all the children who found permanent homes last year, 85 percent of them were with their parents or relatives. That’s a big shift from 2014, when only 54 percent of kids were ending up with parents or kin.

In one recent abuse and neglect case, a baby with disabilities who could no longer live with the mother is going to live with the father, Smith said. “Even teen kids are being reunited with parents or relatives that they didn’t even know they had,” she said.

Now other county child welfare offices are calling Denver for advice on how to remodel their programs, said Jennifer Collins, assistant director of the City Attorney’s Office, human services section. The widespread interest stems from a recent Colorado Court of Appeals opinion that requires lower courts to determine paternity in dependency and neglect cases, which is what Denver began doing in 2016 through its no-more-John-Doe practices.

Dustin Maclean easily could have been a John Doe.

About five years ago, he had a not-too-serious relationship with a woman he reconnected with after working with her years earlier. After they stopped seeing each other, she called to say she was pregnant.

Maclean, now 28, asked her if they could do a paternity test. He didn’t hear from her for about two years, he said, when they had a similar conversation.

Then six days before Christmas last year, Maclean got a summons in the mail. Show up in court, it said, because you are party to a child dependency and neglect case. “The court will make legal findings regarding the identity of the legal parents of the child,” it warned, noting that Maclean could ask for a genetic test. The mother of his child was involved in a dependency and neglect case and had named him as the father.

“I was baffled when I first got it,” said Maclean, who works at The Cheesecake Factory and Whole Foods. “They came knocking on my door right when I was about to go to work.”

Maclean was appointed a lawyer and took a DNA test, which determined he was the father of a 4-year-old girl he had only just met. Child welfare officials were considering sending the girl and her older sister, who has a different father, to live with relatives in California after it was determined their mother, who has been in and out of jail, could not care for them, Maclean said.

“Then they found out I’m actually here; I’m the dad,” he said.

For now, Maclean sees his daughter one day a week and soon will start having her stay with him on weekends. He moved in with his mom after finding out he had a daughter, to a house in Aurora where they play Candyland and dolls, and watch movies. The rest of the time, the girl lives with her great-grandmother, on her mother’s side. Maclean is working toward primary custody, though he said he only cares that his daughter and her sister “are happy in the long run.”

Dustin Maclean, 28, waits for his daughter outside a Denver school last week. Maclean took a paternity test earlier this year after he was notified that his daughter was involved in a child abuse and neglect case. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s an awesome experience,” Maclean said. “I’ve always thought kids are awesome — they make you mad, they make you happy, all of that stuff.”

It’s been a struggle, though, for Maclean to get his daughter to warm up to him. The first time they met, in a room at Denver Human Services, he brought her a fuzzy stuffed animal and she walked right up and gave him a hug. Other times, though, she won’t even hold his hand.

Still, she always calls him “Dad.”

“I’m very happy to be a new father,” he said. “It’s an exciting experience and I’m trying to enjoy all of it.”

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    Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...