Death Knell: Colorado wants reforms for its child-welfare system, but the biggest change is off the table

Last fall, a committee appointed by Governor Bill Ritter made 29 recommendations for how to fix Colorado's child-welfare system. The committee was formed after the deaths of thirteen children who had been involved with the system in 2007, including seven-year-old Chandler Grafner, who was starved to death by his county-appointed guardians.

Chandler's story was egregious: According to state reports and court testimony, the boy never met his biological father, and his mother was found to be so neglectful that she lost custody of him a year before he died. He was sent to live in Denver with his mother's ex-boyfriend and his common-law wife, who forced Chandler to sleep in the bottom of a linen closet on an air mattress stained with his own feces. They also denied him food; Chandler was so thin that a homicide detective described him as a "walking skeleton" with shoulder blades that stuck out like icicles.

Denver newspapers and TV stations followed the twists and turns of the case closely, prompting hundreds of readers to post comments on media websites. They lambasted Chandler's killers — Jon Phillips and his wife, Sarah Berry, both of whom are now in prison — and called for reform of the broken child-welfare system.

Shari Shink of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center.
Mark Manger
Shari Shink of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center.

Government officials were listening.

In April 2008, Governor Bill Ritter created the state Child Welfare Action Committee to study how Colorado's system could be improved. Its first charge: to "analyze Colorado's current state-supervised/county-administered child-welfare system to determine whether this system is most effective in protecting children."

As of this year, 27 of the committee's recommendations, including a statewide training academy for caseworkers and supervisors, are moving forward — though the progress of some, especially those with high price tags, has been slow.

But the fate of the remaining two recommendations is uncertain. And now the largest and most controversial of the two — a proposal that would overhaul Colorado's entire child-welfare system to give more power to the state and less autonomy to the counties — appears to be off the table.

As it stands now, each of Colorado's 64 counties handles its own child-welfare cases. Some do it better than others, and the state can discipline those that consistently get it wrong. But the state can only do so much, especially with limited staff. So in September 2009, the committee suggested a hybrid approach: Smaller counties would be lumped together into regions and their child-welfare services would be delivered by state employees. Bigger counties, such as Denver, Jefferson and Arapahoe, would continue to act on their own, but the state could take over if it felt like a county was failing.

The recommendation was supported by a 66-page report written by the Denver-based consulting firm Policy Studies Inc., which specializes in the field of health and human services. Calling the system "disconnected" and "inconsistent," the report says that the quality of child-welfare services varies wildly from county to county and that many county social workers believe the state human-services department has little understanding of or impact on what they do. The study's authors recommended that Colorado adopt a state-supervised and -administered system. "Simply put," they said, "without a change to the structure of the current system, meaningful reform to service delivery will continue to elude the state."

The committee cited those findings when making its recommendation, and suggested that legislation to overhaul the state's child-welfare system be introduced in January 2010. But the counties immediately balked at the idea. They wrote to Ritter, urging him to reject the recommendation, and told other lawmakers the same thing. At four public hearings held in November and December to gather input on all 29 recommendations, scores of county commissioners and county human service directors testified against the restructuring idea, calling it too expensive, too cumbersome, too Big Brother.

A state-run system would "deprive us of the ability to resolve local issues the way we're currently resolving them," says Jose Mondragon, the head of the Pueblo County Department of Social Services. "To do a state-run operation, we'd have to reinvent the wheel. There's too much work that's gone on over the years."

"We think, in general, the current system works pretty well," says El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. "If [an El Paso County] caseworker gets a name, they'll know it. If someone in Denver gets that name, they won't know it, and more kids will fall through the cracks."

The counties also criticized the recommendation as last-minute and said the committee, which included county leaders, hadn't vetted it properly or calculated its cost. "There was never any justification that came out of the Child Welfare Action Committee as to why such a radical change...should occur," says Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman.

Despite having called the plan "exactly the kinds of things we put this committee in place to do," Ritter backed off. He promised to move forward with 27 of the recommendations, but to study that one, along with a similarly controversial idea for a centralized call center that would receive all reports of abuse and neglect throughout Colorado. He pledged to investigate the issues for a year, with county input.

But for the next several months, Ritter focused instead on pushing for legislation related to other recommendations. This year, lawmakers created a statewide child protection ombudsman office and passed a law to speed up the transfer of child-welfare cases from county to county in cases in which a family moves. They also passed a law that requires social workers to provide feedback about a child's abuse or neglect case to the person who originally reported it — often that child's teacher, doctor or neighbor. (Last month, a subcommittee assigned to deal with the intersection of child abuse, mental health, domestic violence and substance abuse submitted to the governor six more recommendations dealing with those topics. All six are reportedly moving forward.)

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