One redundant fact of the short life of little Chandler Grafner is that almost everyone around him failed him.
Chandler Ashton Grafner was born on April 12, 2000 in Denver, Colorado; weighing only a little over three pounds. According to his Grandmother and Christina Grafner’s mother Sandra Younger, he was born prematurely due to the fact that Christina Grafner had a clotting disorder.
Chandler’s name on his birth certificate shows as Chandler Ashton McLain-Norris. His biological mother was Christina Grafner and according to the birth certificate, his biological father was Josh Norris. In news articles it states Josh was unaware that he even had a son until Chandler’s death.
In October 2004 the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services received a referral call regarding Chandler and his younger half brother, Dominic. According to the report, Chandler was four years of age and still not potty trained. He was still drinking from a bottle and had expressed fear of his “Dad” (referring to Jon Phillips who was living with Christina at the time and the father of his half brother Dominic.) Those allegations were considered unfounded and the case was closed in January 2005 with a risk level of medium.
In September 2005, Chandler who was then age five and a neighbor child, aged three were found walking in a busy intersection around 9:30AM in the morning. The children had been missing for almost an hour. Christina Grafner was charged with Child Abuse and pleaded guilty to this charge on November 2, 2005. She was placed on one-year probation and the case was closed a year later. The children were still residing with her.
For the remainder 2005, several referrals were made to DHS regarding the two boys and some of those calls were from Christina’s mother Sandra Younger. In December of 2005 Sandra Younger reported to DHS that Christina and the boys were no longer residing with her and had moved to Jefferson County. Because Jefferson County could not find a valid address for Christina and the boys, the assessment was closed.
In March of 2006, a Wheat Ridge police officer responded to a call of a vehicle blocking traffic. It was found that Christina Grafner appeared to be under the influence of cocaine or meth and found a crack pipe in her vehicle. Her two boys, Chandler and Dominic were in the vehicle with her at the time. They were not in car seats and were not wearing shoes and according to the officer looked neglected. He noted that Chandler looked extremely thin and it was found that the boys had not eaten in at least a day (some reports state three days). The officer also noted that Chandler’s teeth were decayed. (This was probably Bottle Rot since he was drinking a bottle at least until the age of four years old).
Christina was arrested and DHS signed temporary custody to the Grandmother, Sandra Younger. The placement with Ms. Younger did not last long however because when an assessment of the home uncovered that Sandra Younger allowed unsupervised visits with Christina, which violated the court order. It also found that Sandra Younger was transporting the children without a legal driver’s license and insurance and did not provide car seats for the children. In addition, Ms. Younger was found to be living with someone with a criminal history.
The Jefferson County DHS was granted temporary custody of both Chandler and Dominic. A treatment plan was devised for both Christina Grafner and Jon Phillips. In the meantime DHS placed the boys with Phillips, with the approval of Sandra Younger.
Sandra withdrew her support however when Jon Phillips no longer allowed visitation between her and the boys which was part of the agreement written out by DHS.
Christina Grafner did not abide by any of the plan DHS laid out and according to an investigative assessment into DHS and the role they played in Chandler’s death, critical mistakes were made in placing the children with Phillips as well.
Red flags flew when he was hard to get in touch with, never responded to numerous calls or were not present for home visits. Neither he nor his common law wife Sarah Berry ever signed the Treatment Plan devised by DHS.
Still, the adoption proceeded and in January of 2007 it was finalized. Christina Grafner was not present during any court proceedings regarding custody nor was the biological father Josh Norris notified. In that same month DHS was notified by the Denver Public School system of possible abuse of Chandler. A bruise on his neck and a black ear was noticed and when asked he stated his father Jon Phillips smacked him while he was in the shower.
In later testimony Dominic would describe the showers. He described how Phillips and Berry gave the boys baths when they were good and what he called “mean showers” when they were bad. And he said “There were other days, when Chandler would be bad, he was in the closet.’ How often was he in the closet, the detective asked? “A lot of times,” the little boy replied.
DHS did follow up on the report and came to the school the following day. However Jon Phillips held Chandler out of school that day. Initial attempts to contact him failed and when DHS was finally able to meet up with Chandler and his family it was a full five days later after the initial incident.
At that time the caseworker described the child’s injuries as less than severe than the school system reported (of course it was, it had time to heal) and Chandler then told the case worker that he had slipped and fell in the shower.
Jon Phillips and Sarah Berry stated that they believed the report to be a retaliatory one since they had conflicts with the school. Chandler was quickly taken out from public school and once again DHS received another referral from the school stating that Chandler had not been to school in a month.
Since they found no abuse or neglect in the allegations, DHS did not follow up with the family to see why Chandler no longer attended school.
On Sunday, May 6, 2007 the Denver Police Department responded to a 911 call at the Phillips Berry residence. Prosecutors would later determine that both Berry and Phillips waited hours before calling 911 in order to dispose of evidence of their abuse of the child.
According to the evidence in testimony as well as the words of Chandler’s little brother Dominic, seven-year-old Chandler was held imprisoned in a closet where he was made to urinate, defecate, live and sleep there. When authorities found him, he weighed only 34 lbs. He was seven.
According to reports he begged Dominic for food but Dominic was afraid he too would be in trouble and could not get him anything. Among the damning evidence presented during the trial was a cell-phone call in which Berry asked Phillips what to do after Chandler became so desperate for water that he threatened to escape from the closet, get a knife and kill them both if they didn’t give him a drink. That call was made nine days before Chandler died.
Chandler was described as looking like a concentration-camp prisoner and was covered with 20 to 25 bruises and abrasions.
The closet was described a space no larger than an oven. Hours after Chandler had died but before 911 was called Phillips and Berry ripped up and disposed of the feces-encrusted carpet and other evidence from the linen closet in the dumpster that police later discovered.
During the trial of Sarah Berry, Dr. Nancy Krebs, director of nutrition at Children’s Hospital, testified that the severity of Chandler’s dehydration would have taken one to two weeks without drinking any or very little fluids.
Krebs said Chandler showed all the classic signs of dehydration and starvation, including a severe deficiency of vitamin C, or scurvy, which caused his fingernail beds to bleed before he died. Chandler also suffered from a severe deficiency of niacin, or vitamin B3, which caused his skin to flake off or develop lesions.
“It is quite apparent that he was quite ill,” she said. “I can’t say if he was able to walk or not, but if he could, it wouldn’t be very fast or very far because of the loss of muscle in his legs. “His hands and feet would have been cold because his body was trying to conserve energy. He would have had very little desire to move around.”
Chandler died of a cardiac arrest.
Today in a plea agreement, 23-year-old Sarah Berry was sentenced to 48 years behind bars. The agreement was so that little Dominic would not have to testify at the trial.
Jon Phillips was convicted August 12, 2008 of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole.
Since the death of Chandler Grafner, Colorado Department of Human Services has investigated this case and what went wrong and have made provisions so that hopefully will prevent a rerun of this happening to another child.
According to news reports Sandra Younger is petitioning the courts for custody of Dominic who currently remains in DHS custody. Biological mother, Christina Grafner is pregnant once again and due in October. She is also trying to gain visitation rights to Dominic.
Also according to a news article, Christina Grafner and Josh Norris plan to seek $150,000 each — the maximum penalty allowed under state law, according to the letter sent Oct. 29, 2007 by Denver law firm Bachus & Schanker. The letter also names the boy’s younger half-brother, Dominic, as a claimant. I could not find any other information regarding this claim.
And lastly, a year after Chandler Grafner’s death, his grave still had no headstone. Rocky Mountain News readers had agreed to pay for the headstone but the family could not agree on whether to allow donors to buy one, nor have they themselves.
It seems they are still failing Chandler Grafner.
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