Moffat County caseworker accused of fabricating child abuse, neglect investigations has been charged with forgery
A Moffat County caseworker accused of fabricating reports to make it seem as if she checked on children who were the subject of abuse and neglect claims is now facing charges of forgery and abuse of public records.
Hester Renee Nelms, 43, was under investigation for more than a year by the district attorney’s office in Moffat County, where a crew of 15 caseworkers from across Colorado set up operations in 2020 to re-investigate more than 80 reports of child abuse and neglect. Numerous families, including some who spoke to The Colorado Sun, said that no caseworker ever came to check on their children — despite detailed reports in the state’s child welfare database that those visits had occurred.
An arrest warrant in the case, released this week after a request from The Sun, describes how Nelms’ notes regarding several children were made up and inaccurate. Investigators discovered that in multiple cases, she had never visited homes or interviewed kids and parents, despite writing in detail about the contents of their bedrooms or family members’ jobs and medical conditions.
Investigators found at least 50 cases containing falsified details, including many in which Nelms never made contact with the children or parents. They included entries into the state child welfare database about people that do not exist, and false documentation regarding the “death of parents, false medical issues, fictitious supports and/or employment,” according to the arrest warrant.
In one 2019 case, Nelms wrote that a mother had cervical cancer and wanted to spend as much time as she could with her four children, including a 5-month-old baby. Her report described a house fire the family had endured and said the mother was in nursing school. Neither detail was true, nor did the mother ever have cancer, investigators found. Also, there was no baby in the family.
In another case, Nelms wrote that the mother of the child who was the subject of a sexual abuse report worked as a cook and that her daughter had a boyfriend. But in reality, the daughter is gay and the mother worked at an auto lube shop, according to the investigator.
No children were found to have been injured or killed because of the shoddy casework, according to records previously released by the state to The Sun under open records laws.
State child welfare officials in 2019 notified Moffat County’s child welfare division that it was behind on meeting requirements for abuse and neglect assessments, which counties are supposed to complete within 60 days. The county hired a former child protection caseworker to perform an audit, which found that of the 120 abuse and neglect cases that were open, 90% of them were assigned to Nelms, according to the arrest warrant.
Annette Norton, then the head of Moffat County Department of Human Services, allowed Nelms to focus solely on closing the 120 cases. Yet, after a month, Nelms had finished work on just 13 of the open cases, so Norton fired her, according to court documents.
The caseworker who took on Nelms’ workload soon discovered inaccuracies — and complete untruths — in the reports. In the first case the new caseworker looked into, in which a little girl’s bedroom decor was described in Nelms’ report, the worker, Markie Green, found that Nelms had never actually been to the child’s home.
“The mother looks at Ms. Green and asked her what contact and by what caseworker,” the investigator wrote. “The mother explained there was no contact and no interview.”
The auditor then pulled more of Nelms’ case files, choosing at random, and she and Green made similar discoveries. This led to intervention by the state child welfare division, which rounded up 15 caseworkers from various counties to re-examine every case that Nelms worked. The team discovered a pattern of fraudulent paperwork that stretched over two years.
Nelms did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but in an interview with the investigator, she said she was overwhelmed and overburdened with work in Moffat County and did not receive adequate training. She quit the job once, but returned at the urging of her boss. Nelms, who has since moved to the Denver area, said she was “getting further and further behind and the cases were piling up.” At the time, the department was only 48% staffed.
She did not admit to fabricating documentation, but said she relied on her memory when she entered reports into the statewide database and sometimes mixed up families. Nelms told the investigator she was working “at an extremely fast pace” and couldn’t “remember a lot of the faces of her clients because of how fast the cases were coming in.”
Nelms was charged with felony forgery and misdemeanor abuse of public records.
The Sun asked the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office about the status of its investigation into Nelms’ caseload eight times over the past year and a half. The office’s spokeswoman, Leslie Hockaday, recently emailed a news release to The Sun, dated March 22, noting that an arrest warrant had been issued for Nelms on Nov. 29. She has not been taken into custody. A judge set a $5,000 personal recognizance bond.
County officials also have been quiet about the investigation that rattled many citizens and child advocates in Craig. Norton, who abruptly left the county’s human services department at the start of the investigation, previously told The Sun the child welfare scandal was a “personnel matter” and refused to discuss it.
A statewide performance-monitoring system, which scores county child welfare divisions on how well they respond to suspected cases of abuse or neglect and whether they make face-to-face contact with suspected victims within required timeframes, alerted state officials in 2019 that Moffat County was slipping.
Around the same time, Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte’s office received three separate reports from citizens in Moffat County who said local caseworkers had failed to check on children.