Running Scared

Shawna Rush worked with troubled teens. Then she was killed by one.

Stephanie's grandparents blame her anger on being abandoned by her father and then her mother. The other Huff girls have adjusted better, but Linda says Stephanie reportedly has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She also may be developmentally delayed and have other mental-health problems. Kidz Ark couldn't keep Stephanie forever, though; once she successfully completed the facility's program, she was released back to her grandparents.

The teen stayed in touch with Linda, and she frequently calls her from jail. Linda mostly tries to encourage Stephanie to keep her chin up, but she also tries to explain the seriousness of the situation. "I'm not sure she comprehends it," Linda says. "I asked her if she'll ever write to Shawna's parents, and she said, 'I want to, but I can't do it yet.' She has a pretty flat affect; she doesn't get overly excited about much."

The first week Stephanie spent in jail, she cried and couldn't sleep, according to Linda. "She tells me she's sad about not being with her family and that she's worried her grandparents won't be around when she gets out of jail."

Shawna Rush
Shawna Rush
A bruised and battered Stephanie Huff after she drove 
a truck into Shawna Rush's home.
A bruised and battered Stephanie Huff after she drove a truck into Shawna Rush's home.

Stephanie's public defender, Stephen Sneider, obtained a gag order, effectively sealing any public records related to the case and preventing witnesses -- including Stephanie -- from speaking. Stephanie's grandparents declined to comment for this story but gave Linda permission to share what little she knows of the young woman.

Linda had stopped by the grandparents' home ten months after Stephanie left Kidz Ark to check on her. She and her sisters were in the back yard, playing with their pet rabbits, and, Linda says, Stephanie seemed to be doing well. But just a few months later, she was back in court for running away again. Her grandparents tried to get help for Stephanie -- they wanted her to return to Kidz Ark -- but the Weld County Department of Social Services turned them down because of a lack of funding.

Judy Griego, director of the department, says she's been advised by the county attorney not to discuss any aspect of Stephanie's case. She also declined to speak in general terms about any funding difficulties the county is facing. Linda is quick to point out that it's not Weld County's fault it couldn't afford to send Stephanie back to Kidz Ark, where treatment costs $112 per day per child. Nor is it really the state's fault. She believes it all goes back to society's view of kids like Stephanie.

When Linda and her husband and another couple first got into the child-care industry, they ran a home near Colorado Springs. "We were fought by residents when we tried to open, and when we tried to expand our Sterling facility, we were fought there, too," she says. "People always tell us that what we do is wonderful, as long as it's not in their back yard.

"Everyone looks at these kids like they're horrible monsters, but they're not. They're human beings who have had bad things done to them."

Very bad things. Incomprehensible things.

Kidz Ark has treated children who were chained up by their parents, introduced into prostitution by their parents, left for dead by their parents. Many of the kids have been abandoned by their mothers. They found tequila in the bottle of one abandoned baby, and her seven-year-old sister, who weighed 72 pounds, had so much anger that it took three adults to hold her down when she went into rages. "When you have kids who have suffered this much abuse, it takes more than three, six, even nine months in therapy to help them," Linda says. "But that's all the funds are providing now."

Most of the kids Linda sees aren't adoptable or even ready for foster care, they're so troubled. But residential treatment centers -- which differ from residential child-care facilities, such as Mountain States Children's Home, in that they get Medicaid funding and can therefore treat kids with more severe problems -- have been suffering from budget cuts.

The Colorado Department of Human Services doles out block grants to the county departments, giving them discretion over how they spend the money. "After they spend that, 100 percent of the cost of RTC placement comes out of their pocket," explains Peg Long, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies. "Most counties have spent their reserves. The system is bankrupt. It's bankrupt at the county level and it's bankrupt at the state level."

She points to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights as the cause. TABOR, as it's widely known, is a 1992 constitutional amendment that limits the amount of revenue the state can keep and spend. The legislation requires voters to approve additional taxation and to allow the state to keep extra funds when there's a surplus. Everyone from school administrators to Medicaid recipients have decried TABOR for the budgetary restrictions it's placed on social programs, and child-welfare providers are no exception. "The only bad guys here are the taxpayers who have applauded the tax cuts we've had in Colorado," Long says.

The amount of money RTCs receive from the state hasn't kept pace with the cost of treatment. For example, Denver Children's Home spends $169 a day per child on treatment but gets only $136 per child per day from the state. Due to the lack of funding, the length of time kids can stay in a residential treatment facility has dropped dramatically. In July 2002, the average number of days that beds were available in RTCs was 1,500; by July 2003, that number had dropped to 1,369.

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