PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- A system that is supposed to keep Pueblo's most vulnerable children protected continues to fail them.
In May, 13 Investigates began asking questions about systemic issues inside the Pueblo Department of Human Services following the alleged murder of foster toddler Aiden Seeley in September 2020. Now, our investigative team has learned the deceased toddler's siblings were placed in dangerous conditions after Aiden's death. One of the siblings of Aiden, an elder brother, received scars that will be with him for the rest of his life.
On December 19, 2020, Rachel Abeyta received a phone call from Children's Hospital in Denver that would change her life forever. Her 5-year old great-nephew was flown into the hospital from Pueblo suffering from second-degree burns.
"She gave me the information that he was burned, he was scalded with hot water," said Abeyta. "He had some pretty serious burns on his bottom and one hand."
That 5-year old child is the older brother of Aiden Seeley.
A Brother's Death
In July 2020, Aiden, his brother, and a third sibling were placed in the foster home of 31-year old Dacey Spinuzzi. Less than two months later, the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office said 15-month old Aiden was murdered. Spinuzzi, the foster money, and her boyfriend, 36-year old Ramondo Jones, are in jail charged in connection with the 15-month-old's alleged killing and abuse.
Since October, few details surrounding the case of Aiden's death have emerged. Pueblo DHS has declined 13 Investigates requests for an interview, and a gag order was placed on any case-related court documents by a Pueblo judge.
However, new details emerged on April 19, when Spinuzzi's attorneys attempted to lower her bond at a court hearing.
According to transcripts from a court hearing obtained by 13 Investigates, prosecutors say the extent of Aiden's injuries included a fracture to his arm, a missing toenail, and a broken toe.
Prosecutors told the judge Aiden's injuries were tantamount to torture.
Rachel Abeyta has been caring for Aiden's brother for more than half a year. She says the 5-year-old was a witness to Aiden's murder and would cry every night for his 'baby Aiden'.
“Him witnessing what happened to his brother and being there and watching his brother get beaten or murdered left him severely damaged and made everything worse for him,” said Abeyta.
13 Investigates learned the months after his brother's death would be filled with even more trauma for the 5-year-old.
The Court's Decision
Three days after Aiden's passing, District Court Judge William Alexander ordered that two of Aiden's siblings be returned to the parents - Zalissa Abeyta and Bret Seeley. This is according to a report obtained by 13 Investigates that was submitted into a District Court by the Pueblo County Department of Human Services.
The same DHS reports outline a history of potential abuse against the children at their parents' home before they were taken away and after they were ordered back.
According to the report, a call was made to DHS in September 2019. The caller said Zalissa was abusive with the kids: 'throwing them off the couch grabbing and choking them when she is angry.' Child abuse charges were filed against both Zalissa and Bret in November 2019. Court records show the two parents plead guilty to those charges the following year.
In May 2020, DHS said they received a report from the Pueblo Police Department stating that Zalissa was seen in a Dollar General grabbing her son off of a shopping cart and throwing him on the floor. The Pueblo Police Department told DHS caseworkers the incident was caught on camera. Criminal charges in connection to the incident were filed in December of 2020, the case is still pending.
Then in June 2020, the caseworker assigned to the family received a call stating that Aiden was injured while the children were playing with scissors. DHS reports say Aiden was rushed to the hospital and received 11 stitches. At that time, the parents told DHS that they were asleep at the time, however, Bret Seeley would later say he was present at the home.
The following month, Judge William Alexander gave custody of Aiden and two of his siblings to the Pueblo County Department of Human Services.
After Aiden's death, and less than three months later, the same judge ordered the children to be returned to Zalissa and Bret.
“Which is what I think is completely ridiculous," said Rachel Abeyta, Zalissa's Aunt. "You take kids away from the home for a reason. You don’t give them back because of a death. Yes, Aiden died; he died in Foster care. But did you fix the problem with the parents?”
The courts ordered that the children be returned to the parents' care along with daily professional support. At that time, Zalissa and Bret were receiving support from multiple agencies, including Pueblo DHS.
Living with the parents
One day after receiving custody of two of her children, Zalissa tested positive for amphetamines and cannabis.
On November 23, 2020, DHS receives a tip claiming that Zalissa underfeeds her children, slaps them, and smokes cannabis in front of them. According to the DHS report, "when they do get food, they fight over it because it is usually a small amount."
Then, less than one month later, Zalissa's 5-year-old was severely injured. According to the DHS report, Bret Seeley called their caseworker on December 19 saying Zalissa's 5-year-old son was hurt. According to the DHS report, Seeley told the caseworker the little boy was burned while Zalissa was bathing him.
After being taken to the ER, the boy was flown via helicopter to Children's Hospital Burn Unit in Denver. The child received second-degree burns.
By the time, Rachel arrived at the hospital to see her great-nephew, she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
“They had this poor little 5-year-old scared alone there was no one else in there," said Abeyta. "No caseworkers, no family, nobody in there with him so he was pretty frightened. When he saw me he was really happy.”
Four days after being burned, the 5-year-old was ready to leave the ICU. Rachel says Pueblo County DHS asked her to take the boy home and care for him for the foreseeable future. Rachel agreed, but she grew concerned after she says the agency never vetted her or her home to ensure it would be a safe place for a child.
“They just left, which is a little concerning to me," said Abeyta. "[DHS] just had these kids in a house where you did a background check supposedly. They were a known foster home for the system, I was not. I am an aunt. I am a nurse, but that’s all you know about me.”
The Pueblo County Department of Human Services declined to comment on the boy's case or confirm if any policies were violated.
Rachel said Pueblo DHS would later communicate with her over zoom, but she never fully understood what taking care of her great-nephew would entail.
“DHS was supposed to help me get counseling. They were supposed to help me get him in school. There was all this therapy we were supposed to get," said Abeyta. "The unfortunate thing is I had to get all of those services without any help.”
Pueblo DHS and Courts Respond
The Pueblo County Department of Human Services declined to comment on the case and any resources they've provided to Aiden's siblings after the foster child's death. However, the Pueblo County Commission Chair Garrison Ortiz provided 13 Investigates a statement, specifically regarding the children being sent back to their parents after Aiden's death:
"While we are prevented by law from stating specifically what position we took on a court case involving a minor child, the policies and practices of Pueblo County DHS would recommend against placement in homes where the parents significantly abuse drugs in all but extraordinary circumstances."Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz.
13 Investigates reached out to District Court Judge William Alexander multiple times for comment, but he never responded to our inquiries.
On July 8, 2020, after 13 Investigates sent Pueblo County DHS a series of questions via email regarding the case, the county attorney filed a motion to restrict any documents from being provided to third parties and discussions with the news media. The motion was granted and ordered by District Judge Alexander on Monday.
13 Investigates obtained the DHS report pertaining to Aiden Seeley, his parents, and his siblings three weeks prior to the order being enacted.
Pueblo County's District Attorney Jeff Chostner tells 13 Investigates his office is reviewing the evidence connected to Aiden's brother's second-degree burns.
13 Investigates also reached out to the attorneys representing Zalissa Abeyta and Bret Seeley in a civil case involving Pueblo County DHS. The couple has not commented on our story thus far.
Who Paid the Price
Rachel Abeyta is still working through court proceedings to obtain full custody of her great-nephew. The registered nurse was forced to take six weeks off of work when she initially brought the child home. Due to the severe burns, she says the child required her undivided attention.
Rachel says now it's rare to see her nephew without a smile.
"How he's so happy when he has gone through so much is amazing," said Rachel. "This kid's resilience, his love, and his happiness are amazing to me. I don't know how he gets up and smiles."
When it comes to his suffering, Abeyta says she has a lot of blame to pass around. She blames her niece Zalissa and her boyfriend Bret Seeley for second-degree burns and the continued abuse after Aiden's death.
However, she places the most blame on the entire system. She believes Pueblo DHS and the courts have failed to do their jobs. As a result, her family has paid the price for it.
“They owe him. They owe him. [He] was hurt because of them. He was hurt because that judge said go back, take your kids back and go grieve. He was hurt because the workers who were supposed to check on him failed him. He was burned while under their care. They owe him.”