DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL

In any discussion of Colorado's child-welfare system, getting even the most basic information about children in state care is nearly impossible. That's not because of statute but because of individual county policies about what gets said to whom. State law merely instructs professionals in the system to keep the identity of children confidential. But many social workers and administrators have interpreted the law so broadly that they refuse to disclose anything to almost everyone: the media, school officials and, more troubling, the foster parents charged with caring for the children. It's a "house policy" that puts foster families--and children--in precarious situations.

Dr. Carole Jenny, who heads Children's Hospital's Child Advocacy and Protection team, says she's personally testified in two trials where social-service workers have put children in foster care without telling foster parents their new charges were known to have committed sexual assaults on other children. "The need to know is important," she says. "Those families have to protect the other kids in the household."

In some cases, says Jenny, the information being withheld can endanger the life of the foster child. "I can't tell you how many times I've had kids come in here with asthma, life-threatening asthma, and I make the diagnosis and I hand [the social workers] medication, and then I see the kid two months later when the foster parent brings them in, gasping for air, and I say, `Where's the medication?' And they say, `What medication?' These are very high-risk kids. We'd really come down on biological parents if they treated their kids this way. How come we let the state get away with it?"

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Then there are the kids with behavioral problems such as fire-setting, sexual aggression and violent tendencies. Adams County foster mother Crystal Greene remembers the day three years ago when she took in her first placement, a nine-year-old boy. "They knew he was a fire-setter, and they didn't tell me," Greene says. "He started a fire in the trash dumpster at his school." Greene says she knows of another Adams County case where county workers "tried to get an HIV baby placed and didn't tell anyone [that the infant carried the AIDS virus]. It goes on. It goes on every day."

Greene grew so upset that she formed a statewide advocacy group called the Fostering Families Coalition. "I once had a worker tell me that they couldn't possibly tell foster parents what was really going on because, as she put it, `we don't want to scare people off,'" says Greene.

Linda Johnson-Diliberto, bureau director for child welfare in Adams County, says she and other administrators have dealt with isolated incidents where social workers withheld information. "We dealt with those workers individually, and then the foster-care coordinator reissued our policy, which is we need to share information," she says. There are some Colorado counties where HIV status is treated as confidential, Johnson-Diliberto says, but Adams isn't one of them.

Linda Willoughby and Rita Witmer, social workers for the Denver Department of Social Services, insist that county agencies don't make it a policy to keep information from foster parents. Instead, they say, they do the best they can in a strapped system that is too often the subject of bad publicity. "We do have success stories," says Willoughby, "but you never hear about them."

According to Witmer, a caseworker liaison with the Denver Family Crisis Center, what may seem like a social worker's failure to communicate vital information may actually be the fault of an inexperienced--and overeager--foster parent. "New foster parents who just want to get the child placed in their home [often] don't listen carefully as the caseworker describes all the details," she claims.

But foster parents say the homes of brand-new foster parents are sometimes used as dumping grounds for the system's hard cases. Lynette Newton, a former Arapahoe County foster parent now living in Nebraska, says that she too had a fire-starter placed in her home without warning. She and her husband had just received their county license when they opened their home to a six-year-old boy who allegedly hadn't done anything worse than "tearing a screen" in his prior placement.

"We brought him in and found out he was eight going on nine, not six," says Newton. And his behavioral problems went far beyond tearing screens. The youngster knocked Newton's biological son's dental work out of his mouth, beat up two neighbor children and constantly pushed and shoved a fellow foster child who was all of two years old. Unbeknownst to Newton, he had also set fire to his natural mother's apartment.

"I had no control over him. I couldn't protect the other children from him," Newton says. "Remember, I was just licensed to be a regular foster-care home, not a therapeutic one [where parents are trained to take on children with severe problems]." Newton says that after she called Arapahoe County to complain about the placement, the boy was bounced to another foster home. But that was a receiving home, which, by statute, can keep a child for only ninety days. "After that, they reunited him with his mother," says Newton. "Last I heard, he was down on Colfax in a bar with his mother. He can't be more than twelve."

Arapahoe County Human Services Director Brian Field says he's not familiar with the specific case Newton is talking about. But he says the county's policy is to tell foster parents everything about a child--with the exception, he says, "of things that only involve the parents themselves."

Karen Studen, manager of Colorado's Division of Child Welfare, says her department doesn't support withholding information from foster parents. Studen, whose agency regulates, oversees and audits county foster-care programs, adds that state rules require that caseworkers share "complete information" with the foster parent.

But foster-care parents aren't the only ones who have trouble getting information from child-welfare professionals. Gus Sandstrom says his committee was struck by the difference between the actual language of the state law governing the release of information and the overzealous way the statute is enforced by local agencies.

"The locals have an impression that the confidentiality statute goes much further than it does, a total misimpression," says Sandstrom. "When we came onto the task force, one of the first hearings we had concerned confidentiality. We had both a state education lawyer and a [state divison of child welfare] lawyer come in and explain to us what the rules are." According to Sandstrom, the panel was "shocked" at how much information was readily available to it under the law--but which had been withheld. "Stuff we used to be told we needed a court order for," he says, "we didn't."

Some Colorado counties take the gag rule further than others. During a recent interview, Roseanne Stiblo, public-affairs director for the Denver Department of Social Services, refused to let Denver Family Crisis Center director Anna Frederickson explain why one little boy had been floating around the system for a year and a half--even though Frederickson didn't intend to use his name.

"You can't talk about that," blurted Stiblo, interrupting Frederickson. "If you write that the boy burned his grandfather's house down eighteen months ago, it'll identify him. Then we'll all go to jail."

Using the same apparently self-imposed standard as her guide, Stiblo insists on monitoring all media discussions with Denver social workers, aides and assistants, often cutting off conversations in the name of confidentiality--and the fear that everyone involved will end up behind bars.

Jefferson County takes an even more extreme stand on the issue of confidentiality. "We just don't talk," says Susan Franklin, manager of the county's family-resources department. "We just don't." Not about the program itself, not about the system as a whole, not about kids, whether or not they're referred to by name.

The state's Studen defends the practice. "Each county has the ability to establish policy around their interaction with the media," she notes in a written statement.

But though Stiblo and others repeatedly refer to statutory limits on their ability to provide information, there is no actual statute that requires absolute silence on all child-welfare issues. Wade Livingston, a lawyer in the Colorado Attorney General's office who specializes in child-welfare law, observes that the law in Colorado "basically says you can't identify the kid. In some rural communities, where they have just a handful of kids in care, that may mean you can say very little. But in a place like Denver or a metropolitan area like that, you'd have to give the name, address and Social Security number to identify a kid."

Richard Gelles, director of the University of Rhode Island's Family Violence Research Program, says the cloak of confidentiality has become a convenient excuse for social-service agencies around the country. "They bury their mistakes behind confidentiality," he says. "They use it to keep you out of their hair, to keep me out of their hair, to keep from being held accountable."

And Newton and Greene say fear of retribution discourages foster parents from breaking the code of silence to talk about the problems they see on the front lines.

In her case, Newton says, that fear became reality when Arapahoe County removed two foster children she was weeks away from adopting, yanked her license and accused her of being abusive. She says the action followed a long line of threats from the county, including a vow to move one of her foster kids to another placement because she objected to his visiting his mother--who he said had held his head in a flushing toilet during his last visit home.

Newton and her attorney, Joe Pickard, have notified Arapahoe County that they intend to sue the county over the 1994 incident, which resulted in Newton losing her foster children. Newton charges that the county's allegations were false--and were payback for her outspoken criticism of the system as president of the Arapahoe County Foster Parent's Association.

County prosecutors never filed criminal charges against Newton. But they did place her name on the state's child-abuse registry. She's already managed to get her license reinstated (though she ripped it up after having it returned to her), and the state has taken her name off the registry.

Brian Field says the action taken against Newton "had nothing to do with [her] advocacy." He says Newton was only given her license back after she signed an agreement promising to relinquish it upon receipt--a claim Newton ardently disputes. Field declines to discuss why the county accused Newton of abuse.

Sandstrom says his task force heard a lot of testimony from foster parents about alleged retaliation by county officials. "We couldn't document actual intentional retaliation," he says, but the fear among foster parents was real. Studen says she's never heard of a single incident of retaliation.

The rewrite of the Colorado Children's Code now pending in the state legislature would at least partially address the confidentiality issue by requiring certain information to be shared with schools or other agencies. But even if the 514-page measure passes as written, the question of whether foster parents are allowed access to information would still be up to the Colorado Department of Social Services.

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