DYERSBURG, TENN. - For more than three years, Susan Randolph has wanted to talk publicly about the weekend the Department of Children's Services came into her family's life and turned it upside down, leaving in its wake the deaths of her husband and a teenaged girl.
She hasn't been able to until now.
Last week, state lawyers abandoned efforts to keep secret a judge's ruling that DCS was liable for the deaths of Todd Randolph, 46, and Stevie Noelle Milburn, 15.
DCS also was found liable for Susan Randolph's injuries. She was shot three times in the neck, chest and arm as she sat on her front porch on a summer evening in 2009.
All three were the victims of Stevie's father, Chris Milburn, who later killed himself.
The 62-page wrongful death judgment against DCS was issued by state Claims Commissioner Nancy Miller-Herron on Nov. 26 and unsealed late last week after a protective order was lifted.
The judgment documents a series of missteps by DCS, which had asked the Randolphs to take in a neighbor's daughter for the weekend until the agency could investigate accusations of child abuse against her father.
The judgment found DCS never warned the Randolphs that Chris Milburn was accused of severe sexual and physical abuse or that he could be violent. It found that a DCS caseworker didn't follow agency policies and that she backdated her signature of necessary paperwork after the murders. And it found that DCS never gave the couple any instructions on what to do if Milburn insisted on seeing his daughter.
The judgment ordered DCS to pay the maximum possible in damages for its negligence: $300,000 in the death of Todd Randolph, $300,000 for the death of Stevie Milburn and $275,000 for Susan Randolph's injuries.
On Friday, Susan Randolph said she was relieved she can finally talk about the ordeal that robbed her of her husband of 22 years and left her two children, 5 and 9 years old at the time, without a father.
Randolph said she filed the lawsuit for two reasons: that the young girl with a "beautiful spirit, a beautiful smile" would not be forgotten, and that by shining a light on problems at DCS, changes can be made to prevent tragedies from happening to other families.
"The whole point of going forward with this was to get the truth out," Randolph said. "Because it was made clear in the beginning that this was being swept under the rug as just a terrible thing that happened to us but that could not have been avoided. But we knew that to be a lie. There were places where the course of events would likely have been changed had people in this agency acted differently. But there is no way you can walk up and knock on the door of a government agency and say, 'Would you please tell people what really happened instead of 'Oh yes, this was a terrible accident.' This was the only way."
A DCS spokeswoman directed questions about the case to the state attorney general's office. Its spokeswoman did not respond on Friday.
Couple couldn't reach caseworker
The Randolphs lived two doors down from the Milburns in a close-knit Dyersburg neighborhood in West Tennessee.
Stevie Milburn, whose name is still sealed by the court but was identified in media accounts at the time of the shooting, was Chris Milburn's daughter from an earlier relationship.
Late on the night of July 30, 2009 - a Thursday - Todd Randolph got a call from Chris Milburn asking if they could keep the girl overnight because she had made allegations of abuse and DCS said she couldn't go home.
"He told Todd it was inappropriate touching," Susan Randolph said last week. "We didn't know what had happened really, but I thought at the time that maybe it was something like they were wrestling and he'd accidentally touched her chest. I thought there was a way for them both to be telling the truth."
The couple agreed, and a DCS caseworker dropped off the girl that night. Their own children were away at their grandparents for the weekend.
The next morning, Susan Randolph agreed to take the teenaged girl to DCS offices to meet the caseworker who asked them to see a doctor and a forensic interviewer.
Susan Randolph waited in separate rooms during each visit and never heard the girl's story.
The girl reported her father had given her a black eye that kept her out of school for a week, a burst lip, a smack in the face, a punch in the face with a closed fist and a whipping with a belt.
She also reported he sexually assaulted her.
The Randolphs also did not know that DCS had learned of an earlier domestic violence charge against Chris Milburn, and a prior DCS report that included the notation that Milburn "acts like a pedophile and dominates his child."
The DCS caseworker asked Chris Milburn to name temporary caretakers for his daughter for the weekend until the agency could investigate the allegations the following Monday. He named the Randolphs. Asked by a DCS caseworker, the Randolphs agreed once more.
On the temporary protection agreement the caseworker had asked Chris Milburn to sign, the caseworker checked "no" on the question about whether there had been serious physical harm to the child.
The rest of the required paperwork wasn't filled out until after their shootings.
The caseworker acknowledged later that she completed the paperwork Aug. 3, a day after the murders, but backdated her signature to July 31, records state. Her supervisor also backdated the paperwork, according to Randolph's lawyer.
The caseworker also offered contradictory accounts of whether she instructed the Randolphs to keep the girl away from her father, records show.
Susan Randolph says if they had known about the seriousness of the allegations or that it was their job to keep Chris Milburn away from his daughter, they would not have been able to provide a place for her.
During that weekend, the Randolphs grew increasingly concerned by Chris Milburn's behavior.
Chris Milburn was under the impression he could see her any time and under any circumstance, Susan Randolph said.
Susan Randolph called the only contact number they had, a cellphone number for the caseworker, to clarify the arrangement, but her voicemail box was full. The caseworker would later offer differing explanations, first saying she didn't have her DCS cellphone with her, then saying she spotted missed calls on the phone that weekend, according to court records.
"We just didn't know what to do," Susan Randolph said. "We didn't know if Chris' behavior was because he was being wrongly accused. We didn't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. We couldn't reach her."
By Sunday afternoon, Stevie Milburn told the Randolphs she did not want to see her father any more.
They called the caseworker again. No answer. The voicemail box was still full.
Sunday evening, Susan Randolph was first to see Chris Milburn approaching the house, not from the street, but from the flowerbeds.
Her husband talked briefly with him, and then Chris Milburn pulled out a gun and shot Todd Randolph. He died beside his truck.
Susan put her head in her lap so she wouldn't have to see Chris Milburn shoot her. She felt the gunshots enter her body, then heard him go inside, yell and then more gunshots. Stevie Milburn died inside the home.
Chris Milburn fatally shot himself later that night, about a half a block away from the Randolphs' home.
Susan Randolph filed her lawsuit against DCS in 2010, and the case went to trial before the Claims Commission of the State of Tennessee Western Division in April 2012. The commission has judicial powers and hears claims brought against the state. The judge is appointed by the governor.
Stevie Milburn's biological mother, Jessica Readen, also joined the lawsuit. Readen had been living apart from her daughter in Oregon for the eight years before the girl's death, according to court papers. Neither Readen nor her attorneys could be reached Friday.
Brandon Bass, Susan Randolph's attorney, said he and Readen's attorney asked that the trial be public, but at the request of the attorney general's office, it remained under a protective order.
Bass said the trial exposed DCS' failure to follow its own policies.
DCS policies require clear steps for how the child is going to be protected against an alleged perpetrator and how to monitor compliance with it, Bass said.
"In this case, they didn't do that," said Bass, who is based in Nashville with The Law Offices of John Day.
But the trial also exposed the vagueness of existing DCS policies that are supposed to guide caseworkers in how they place children in temporary arrangements. The policies - unchanged since the shooting - don't specifically require the agency to give caregivers any information about a child's welfare or guidance on what to do or whom to call if a problem arises, Bass said.
When the judge ruled in November that DCS was negligent, she also ordered all testimony and evidence unsealed, with the exception of the child's name and the names of people who reported her abuse.
In December, state lawyers appealed only on the portion of the ruling requiring that the findings and evidence be made public.
"If there is negligence in this case, an award of money damages is the avenue of recourse permitted by law, not public dissemination of confidential documents," they argued.
But to Bass and Susan Randolph, making the evidence public was the key to justice. Bass noted that the $300,000 judgment for Todd Randolph's death was a "pittance" for the state of Tennessee and for the death of a father of two young children.
"That money is not going to make the state of Tennessee take notice by itself," he said. "To try to squelch people like Susan Randolph and Todd Randolph's family from being able to talk about what happened to them frustrates the Randolphs' very purpose in bringing this claim in the first place," Bass said.
Since her husband's death, Susan Randolph, 48, has returned to work as a math lab coordinator at a community college. Her children are now 12 and 8. She said they are guided by their faith, believe the truth will help other families and that their family will one day be reunited.
"I'm so very thankful that Todd Arnold Randolph came into this world, was my husband and my children's father, and nobody can take that away," she said.
"I can say three and a half years later that is a beautiful thing that none of that ugliness can take away. Do I wish he were still here? Every day. Is my family healing? Most definitely. All we have are the cards that are dealt. We don't get the cards we wish we had. Because I'm a person of faith, I do have confidence that as part of the body of Christ that there is more. And that Todd is OK. And so is she."