Home for Dinner

Adoree Blair (above) has fostered 35 children in thirteen years; Ellen Toomey-Hale (below, left) and Shari Shink work for the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center.Representative Maryanne "Moe" Keller sponsored legislation to change the system.Karen Ashby is the presiding judge in Denver Juvenile Court.
Michael Miller

In November 1998, an employee of a local hospital called the Denver Department of Human Services child-abuse hotline to report that a patient, four-year-old Ben, had been admitted with bruises on his body. Ben's father had taken him to the emergency room after he fell off a bookshelf he'd climbed onto. Doctors and nurses noticed that Ben had other bruises that couldn't be explained by the fall, however, so they asked him how he'd gotten them. Ben told them that his mom, Lisa, had been hitting and pinching him.

A caseworker from the agency investigated Ben's mother and decided to take Ben and his five-year-old sister, Rebecca, to the Family Crisis Center, a temporary holding place for abused kids. After a few days, the caseworker placed Ben and Rebecca with their father, George, who was no longer living with Lisa. (The names of everyone involved in the case have been changed.) But George later returned them to their mother without the department's permission. When the DDHS caseworker found this out the next month, the kids were sent to live with their aunt and uncle.

Theirs was one of more than 500 dependency-and-neglect (D&N) cases that originated in the DDHS that year -- and every year -- before winding their way through the child welfare system and Denver Juvenile Court. Far too often, these cases aren't resolved for many months -- even years.

But the system is now undergoing drastic changes, thanks to a state law that has already been implemented in most counties and took effect in Denver in November. The law, called Expedited Permanency Planning (EPP), requires that abused and neglected kids under the age of six -- and their siblings -- be placed in a permanent home within a year of being removed from their original residence. Before EPP, the federal guideline for placing kids in permanent homes was eighteen months, but even that wasn't always met in Colorado. Denver, which has the most D&N cases of any county, is one of the last to implement the new law.

Expedited Permanency Planning was born in Adoree Blair's living room, which, like the rest of the rooms in her Littleton home, smells like baby. Plastic toys in bright yellows, reds, blues and greens clutter the floor, and a basket stuffed with diapers and baby lotion sits on the coffee table. Blair and her husband, Jim, have four grown children. But in the last thirteen years, they have fostered another 35 kids. At present, they have two boys -- brothers, aged two and one -- living with them.

It was one child in particular, however -- a little girl Blair calls "Sarah" -- who left an indelible impact on the Blair family and, eventually, on all abused and neglected children in Colorado.

When the Blairs took in two-month-old Sarah from the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services in 1988, she weighed only six pounds; Blair says the caseworkers told her that Sarah had been starved and that when she cried, her parents had bashed her head into a wall. She'd had a fractured skull and arm, and her head wasn't growing normally. She was the Blairs' second foster child. The first had returned home after just three weeks with them, and, Blair says, "We thought being foster parents was a piece of cake."

Sarah showed them a different story. "I'd go to pick her up or change her diaper, and she would cringe," Blair says. "I'd never seen a baby with such fear in her eyes."

Blair has two large photo albums filled with pictures of Sarah. In one, taken early on, she's lying in the arms of Blair's youngest daughter, who was six at the time. A tiny bundle in pink pajamas, Sarah's fear is palpable: She is cowering, her shoulders scrunched in as if to protect herself, and her wide blue eyes hold a look of terror.

The Blairs became foster parents only because Adoree, now 52, wanted a fifth child; her husband didn't want to put one more kid through college, though, so they agreed to become foster parents, caring for children only until permanent homes could be found for them. But the couple fell in love with Sarah. They considered her their own and were willing to adopt her. The Blairs took her everywhere -- on camping trips, to Mexico, to the Caribbean. In later photos, snapped during those family trips, Sarah is smiling and looking more like a normal, happy child.

While the Blairs were caring for the new addition to their family, Sarah's parents were slowly complying with their treatment plans -- the list of requirements parents must fulfill to get their kids back -- which included parenting and anger-management classes, psychiatric evaluations and twice-weekly visits with Sarah.  

But the caseworker who monitored these visits told the Blairs that Sarah screamed each time for the full hour. When she returned, the Blairs say, Sarah sometimes continued screaming and occasionally had finger marks on her neck.

In court, the parents were granted one delay after another. "They'd get a continuance just for saying they'd made an attempt to go to their parenting class. Or they'd make an appointment for therapy, but it wouldn't be for another two weeks, so their attorneys would ask for more time, and they'd get it," Blair says. "Those were the days when kids would go back to their parents no matter what."

Before the passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, parent-child reunification was the bottom line. In 1980, the United States Congress had passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act -- a misnomer, considering that its purpose was not to assist adoption, but to return kids to their errant parents and, in so doing, to save money by avoiding the high cost of foster care. It required states to try their best to reunite kids with their birth parents or risk losing a huge chunk of federal child welfare dollars.

In the early 1990s, as more and more stories about kids who had died or been repeatedly abused at the hands of their parents were publicized, national child-advocacy groups such as Hear My Voice began lobbying Congress to shift the law's focus from family preservation to child safety. When the Adoption and Safe Families Act finally passed, states were no longer pressured to reunite families as a condition of funding; human-services departments are now assured federal money as long as they put the safety of children first.

But that law didn't come in time for Sarah. In late 1989 her parents completed their treatment plans, and just after Christmas, Sarah went home with them. For the next few months, Blair continued to see Sarah and her parents; she had agreed to help the mother, who was pregnant with a second child, find daycare. During that time, Blair observed the mother's parenting practices: If Sarah didn't set her bottle upright on the table, her mother wouldn't let her drink anymore; if she spilled her food, she wouldn't get to eat anymore; if she wet her pants, she'd be deprived of her bottle; and instead of helping Sarah to the toilet to potty-train her, her mother would make her crawl to the bathroom.

One day, three months after Sarah had been returned to her parents, Blair babysat while Sarah's mother was getting dental surgery. "She was so excited to be back. She was laughing. She knew she was home," Blair says of the little girl. When her mother came to pick her up, Sarah started screaming. The next day, Sarah's mom brought her back to Blair's house so that she could go to another dental appointment. That's when Blair noticed more finger marks on Sarah's neck. She reported it to human services, and when Sarah's parents found out at the next month's court hearing, they were furious. They never allowed Blair to see Sarah again. As far as Blair knows, Sarah, now twelve, is still living with her parents.

To Blair, the whole situation seemed so unfair. Why were the parents given nineteen months to get their acts together? How could a child be returned to abusive parents? How could the human-services department and the court sever the attachment Sarah had formed with her foster parents? Blair had read about attachment disorder, an affliction that doctors first studied in the 1940s but which has gained more attention in recent years. Through her research, Blair learned that when the attachment that very young children have to their primary caregivers is broken, they have difficulty forming future attachments, which can result in severe behavioral problems.

In addition, Blair worried that because parents were given so much time to get treatment, kids were languishing in foster care and were frequently moved from one place to another. The many moves, Blair felt, created uncertainty and disruption that would be traumatic for any adult, let alone a child.

So in the summer of 1990, Blair settled down in her living room with a copy of the Colorado Children's Code and began poring over the laws. When she discovered that the legal system treated two-year-olds the same as sixteen-year-olds, she spent several days at the American Humane Association collecting information about attachment disorder to back up her argument that lengthy foster-care placements and multiple moves affect young children the most.

Blair spent the next couple of years researching and writing what she hoped would be a new law -- one that would protect the attachments of very young children by ensuring them a permanent home within six months. She had just become the legislative chair for the Colorado State Foster Parents Association, and she asked the group to back her proposal, which she initially called the "zero-to-six law," since it applied to kids under the age of six (as well as to all siblings, regardless of their ages). The association agreed to support it, and so did the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center (then known as the Children's Legal Clinic), as well as several child advocates. The groups helped Blair refine the bill, which she sent to newly elected legislators in 1993 in hopes that an eager one would take interest.  

Maryanne "Moe" Keller, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, immediately identified with the proposed bill. Through her work as a special-education teacher, Keller, a freshman representative that year, saw a lot of foster kids and knew how the system worked -- or, in many cases, didn't work.

One little boy, who had been in various foster homes for more than three years, sticks out in her mind. "Each time he'd thrive in a home, he'd end up going back to his mom [an alcoholic who was developmentally disabled]," she says. "She'd go through her treatment programs, and then he'd be returned to her and he'd plummet. Then she'd be off her treatment again, and he'd go back to a foster home.

"An attorney or a GAL [guardian ad litem] could walk into court and ask for a six-month continuance because his caseload was too big, and the judge would give it," she continues. "Or a parent wouldn't show up, and there'd be a continuance. I thought, you know, we can do better than this. Something is wrong with the system when adults' schedules take precedence over kids'. To a child who is four or five years old, six months is an eternity."

So Keller agreed to take up Blair's proposal as a bill, which was renamed Expedited Permanency Planning. But the state representative had no idea how difficult it would be to change the system.

Two months after Ben and Rebecca moved in with their aunt and uncle, the Denver Department of Human Services learned that both relatives had criminal records, so Ben and Rebecca were moved again -- this time to their mom's cousin's house. Throughout the month of February 1999, Ben's teachers reported that he'd started hitting other kids at school. Rebecca was supposed to be in kindergarten, but her immunization records had somehow gotten lost in the move between her mother's house and the Family Crisis Center, so she'd missed half of the school year and wouldn't be able to enroll until the following fall.

In February, George requested a jury trial after denying a dependency-and-neglect petition that the department had filed against him. But the next month, he told that court that he no longer wanted custody of his children. Instead, both he and Lisa asked for more visitation time. The court denied their requests, however, since neither parent had complied with their treatment plans: George was supposed to get an adequate home and take parenting classes, and Lisa, who had a long rap sheet that included drug-dealing, assault, disturbing the peace, destroying private property and shoplifting, was ordered to take parenting and anger-management classes, find a job and a place to live, show up at visits with her kids and stay out of trouble with the law.

That didn't happen. In May, Lisa was arrested and charged with prostitution; she wasn't released from jail until mid-June. No one had heard from George in eight weeks. In late June, Lisa's cousin took Ben and Rebecca on vacation and didn't return when he said he would. No one knew where the kids were for two weeks. In July, the department found out that the cousin had moved the kids to Lisa's mother's house.

In August, the kids were placed in a foster home. It was the seventh time they'd moved in nine months.

When Keller introduced Blair's bill in 1993, several other legislators wanted to co-sponsor it, and it sailed through the House of Representatives. But by the time it reached the Senate, judges and human-services officials had gotten wind of it. They came out against it, testifying that there was no way they could move cases through the system faster without money to pay for more services for drug- and alcohol-addicted parents. The strongest opposition came from the Denver Department of Human Services.

"It was a battle," Blair says. "We had judges arguing that it wasn't fair to parents, and human-services workers who were as mad as could be. They said that because they didn't have the resources, it couldn't be done."  

As a result, Keller and the bill's other supporters backed down from their six-month requirement on permanent placement and settled on a more realistic goal of twelve months.

But then the legislative legal ser-vices staff estimated that it would cost $9 million to $12 million to implement the program statewide. "There was no way the state was going to come up with that kind of money," Keller says.

The bill died in the Senate Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions Committee.

Toward the end of the 1993 legislative session, Karen Beye, then head of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), came up with a possible solution to the funding problem: She suggested using $300,000 from the Family Issues Cash Fund to get the first county, Jefferson, up and running. (The Colorado Legislature had created the Family Issues fund in 1992 to help low-income families; the money came from a federal emergency assistance program and was slated to continue until 1997.) Since resolving cases faster meant spending less on foster care and services for parents, Beye said, the CDHS would be able to continue funding new counties with the savings gleaned from those that had already expedited cases. (More than $200,000 was saved in Jefferson County in its first year of EPP, Keller says now.)

With the funding plan included, Keller, Blair and other EPP supporters met all summer with opponents to try to write a bill that would be acceptable to everyone. Still, it wasn't an easy sell. "Over the summer, the philosophical arguments about parents' rights continued," Blair recalls. "A social worker from Denver said, 'You can't tell a drug-addicted mother that she has six months to get over her addiction or her baby will go to another family.' People yelled at me and said this was a fast-track-to-adoption bill."

But when Keller reintroduced House Bill 1178 in 1994, it passed easily. The law allowed ten years for every county to implement EPP. Only two have yet to do so: EPP will take effect in Archuleta County this month and in Adams County in February.

Denver was one of the last to start EPP because there wasn't enough money to get such a large county started until last year, when the state legislature allocated $13 million from its general fund to the $32 million remaining in the Family Issues Cash Fund. (Some of the money in the latter fund goes toward developing new databases for state and county human-services departments and additional training for social workers, foster parents, domestic-violence counselors and mental-health workers; the extra $13 million was earmarked for the counties that had yet to implement EPP.) The Denver Department of Human Services will get $1.3 million from the Family Issues fund every year for three years; that amount will decrease by 25 percent in each of the following four years. After the seventh year, the department will be on its own; the money it will have saved by moving cases along more quickly will have to be enough to continue providing more services faster.

At the heart of EPP is a clause that restricts courts from granting delays unless they're in the best interests of the child or unless good cause is shown. The law also sets new time frames for every step in the legal process.

Before EPP, the adjudicatory hearing -- the initial court appearance where parents either admit or deny that they've abused or neglected their children -- had to be held within ninety days of the dependency-and-neglect petition being served to the parents; now that hearing must be held within sixty days. The dispositional hearing, during which the parents' treatment plans are ordered, used to have to be held within 45 days of the adjudicatory hearing; now it must be held within thirty days. But the bill actually encourages both hearings to be held on the same day. Permanency planning hearings, during which living arrangements for kids are determined, used to have to occur "as soon as possible" following the dispositional hearing, but no later than eighteen months after the child was removed from his original home. Now the permanency planning hearing must occur no later than three months after the dispositional hearing. And finally, EPP requires that children be living in their permanent home within twelve months.

"Colorado is pretty progressive," says Steve Christian, program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's one of the few states that have really shortened time frames."

Three years after Colorado's EPP law passed, Congress came up with a new time frame for getting kids into permanent homes faster; the Adoption and Safe Families Act now requires states to hold permanency planning hearings within a year of a child's removal from his home instead of eighteen months. Before the 1997 act, approximately half of the states had already passed laws requiring permanency planning hearings to take place earlier than eighteen months, but none were as rigid as Colorado's. Most of those states required such hearings to take place within a year, although New Mexico and Pennsylvania passed laws in 1993 and 1986, respectively, requiring the hearings to occur within six months of a child's removal from his home.  

Keller, who will complete her tenure in the state legislature this month because of term limits, says EPP was the most important law she worked on during her eight years in office. "I underestimated the torturous path I'd have to take to get it passed," she says. "But I'd do it all over again."

September rolled around, and there was still no word from George. Ben became angry over his dad's absence, and both kids appeared anxious and fearful after visits with their mother, who by then had completed only the visitation part of her treatment plan. Caseworkers also learned from the foster parents that Ben and Rebecca had been acting out sexually with one another. The court ordered both to receive therapy each week; after undergoing mental-health evaluations, they were to be moved to a second foster family -- one that would be interested in adopting them. The court also ordered that Rebecca receive speech therapy and after-school special-education tutoring.

But their tension, anxiety and behavioral problems only escalated by the time of the next court hearing in December 1999, and Ben had become more aggressive and even threatened to kill his sister. Lisa didn't attend the hearing; she was jobless and homeless at the time and hadn't gone to any anger-management classes because the human-services department hadn't made a referral on her behalf. No one had yet arranged the special-education services Rebecca had been ordered to receive, either.

Jude Liguori spent more than a year planning how the Denver Department of Human Services would meet the new time frames while giving parents a chance to get the treatment they needed -- a monumental task, considering that the number of dependency-and-neglect cases has increased dramatically. Between January 1, 1999, and September 30, 1999, 493 D&N cases were filed. During that same period in 2000, there were 591 cases.

The department attributes the rise in cases to welfare reform; as more pressure is placed on parents to find jobs, more abuse and neglect occur. The number-one reason kids wind up in the system is because their parents have drug or alcohol problems and abuse or neglect their children as a result; the second most common reason stems from domestic violence, and the third cause is mental illness, says Liguori, the child protection administrator for the DDHS.

The money the DDHS gets from the state is being used to expand a large range of services for parents and to provide them more quickly; according to a 1999 report the CDHS issued to the state legislature, it costs about $5,000 per family to provide the added services needed to make EPP possible. Every family with kids younger than six will be assigned an advocate who will attend the family group conference, supervise visits between parents and children and help the family get the services they need. Through the Savio House, a substance-abuse treatment program with which the department contracts, drug- or alcohol-addicted parents will get immediate access to treatment. In addition, the DDHS will embark on an aggressive marketing campaign to recruit more foster and adoptive parents so that there will be more places for kids to go if they're not returned to their families.

Before EPP, when the department would receive a call on its child-abuse hotline, it would assign someone from its "intake" department to investigate and decide whether the child was in danger and needed to be removed from his home. After a few weeks, the intake department would pass the case on to a caseworker, who would draw up a treatment plan for the parents and arrange for the necessary services. Coming up with such a plan often took several weeks. Then it would usually take the parents weeks or even months to get those services -- either because they were unwilling to get help or because the therapists and treatment providers didn't have the capacity to serve them right away.

"Now the intake person and the caseworker are paired together in 72 hours," Liguori says. "We really want to hit the ground running and have a substance-abuse or mental-health evaluation done for the parents in three to five days. We know that what's best for kids is to keep them with their parents or kin, so we kick in immediately with family-group conferencing. If the child won't be safe with the parents, we do a home study of all family members willing to care for the child."  

The DDHS has been holding family-group conferences -- meetings where relatives discuss placements for kids --since 1996; they'll just be holding them sooner now. "We knew EPP was coming, and we felt we'd been accessing the family too late in the process," Liguori says. "We're changing how we do business."

The department will also speed up its concurrent planning, a process that involves working with two or more placement plans at the same time, the first being the parents' treatment plans and the second involving other relatives or foster families willing to adopt the children, if need be. "If you wait until the first plan fails to do a second one, you start from ground zero again, and it's not fair to the child, because the clock is already ticking," Liguori says. "We're not only going to have relatives identified up front, but we're going to have them studied and waiting to go."

The caseworker, the family advocate and any therapists involved in the parents' treatment will meet twice a month to review the parents' progress and see if anything is standing in the way of developing a permanent plan for the kids. In addition, court facilitators have been hired in all counties where EPP has taken effect. Barbara Bosley, who was a court facilitator in Greeley for five years, became Denver's court facilitator in November 1999, giving her a year to prepare for EPP. Her job is to move EPP cases along as quickly as possible; Bosley acts as a liaison between all parties in a case -- the parents, social workers, attorneys and judges -- to make sure they are all sticking to the timelines and communicating with each other.

To ensure that parents have the best possible chance of getting their kids back, the department is now granting parents more visits -- and more meaningful ones -- with their kids. Parents used to be able to visit their kids only once a week at a human-services facility. Now they will visit their children more frequently and at more diverse locations, such as a school or foster home. "We want to integrate parents into their children's regular routines and get them to talk about the choices they've made," Liguori says. "We have very few cases where parents have willfully hurt their kids; most of them were in high-stress situations and made bad choices, and most of them can be rehabilitated. If we can get parents talking to their kids, they're more likely to be reunified with them."

Another big change that will result from EPP is a stronger reliance on mediation. Prior to the law's enactment, cases in which parents denied that they'd abused or neglected their kids went to trial. Now that the department has money from the state, it has a budget for mediation, where disputed cases can be resolved without a trial.

In counties where EPP has already been implemented, these changes have been working, according to state and county human-services officials. On average over the past few years, 80 percent of kids statewide -- there are about 6,800 kids in foster care, plus another 1,200 in Denver -- have been placed in permanent homes within a year.

In Denver, however, permanency planning hearings took longer eighteen months to occur in 41 percent of the cases, according to a 1996 report produced by the Dependency and Neglect Court Assessment Advisory Council, a group of lawyers, social workers and foster parents who studied ten counties of varying sizes and locations to determine how well they were complying with the federal eighteen-month guideline. That percentage was surpassed only by Otero, Morgan and Mesa counties, which exceeded the eighteen-month limit in 50, 63 and 70 percent of cases, respectively.

The federally funded study also showed that Denver was second worst in the percentage of cases that were delayed. Roughly 33 percent of its cases were continued for a variety of reasons, including unprepared attorneys, missing caseworker reports and absentee parents; El Paso County granted the most continuances, at 37 percent.

And Denver ranked worst when it came to the amount of time it takes to terminate parental rights -- a legal step that must be taken before a relative or foster parent can adopt a child: 35 percent of the parental terminations in Denver took more than three years to complete, and 15 percent took five years. Only two other counties topped Denver in the average number of days between the time a termination-of-parental-rights order was issued to when an adoption order was given; it took an average of 345 days in Denver, 409 days in Larimer County, and 413 days in Adams County.  

Liguori says the department has always wanted to change parts of the system, but "without the resources and without a sweeping change like this that involves the court, we couldn't. We're changing a dinosaur."

By March 2000, the court learned that Ben was becoming harder and harder for his foster parents to control; he'd been hitting and choking other children and had become increasingly anxious about moving again. After visits with his mom, Ben would lash out at everyone around him. Rebecca had become withdrawn and depressed, and at one point, she told caseworkers that she had been sexually molested by a cousin while staying at her grandmother's house the previous summer.

Lisa had since gotten a job and moved in with her mother, but she still hadn't complied with the other parts of her treatment plan. Sixteen months after the kids had been removed from Lisa's home, the DDHS finally filed a motion to terminate Lisa and George's parental rights. George finally reappeared and explained to the court that because he'd been working outside Denver, he'd been unable to visit his kids. Both he and Lisa asked for more visits, but the court denied their requests and set a termination-of-parental-rights hearing for June 12.

Just two days after the March hearing, Ben and Rebecca's foster mother told the DDHS that she could no longer handle the kids' sexual activity or Ben's angry outbursts; she said she could only control Ben if he was on medication, but Lisa wouldn't allow her son to take any. And so the DDHS removed the children from the home and placed them in the Family Crisis Center for the second time. After this, the kids no longer received therapy or attended school; their only education came from tutoring offered at the Family Crisis Center. It took the DDHS a month to find another home for Ben and Rebecca, because no one wanted them after learning about the siblings' incestuous behavior. The kids were placed in separate foster homes at the end of April; Rebecca moved into a home with ten other foster kids.

Shari Shink, founder and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, a small group of lawyers whose mission is to protect abused and neglected children and who pride themselves on being a thorn in the system's side, was on the Dependency and Neglect Court Assessment Advisory Council.

"Historically, Denver has been the place people look to, because it's the only county with its own juvenile court," she says. "But as I travel the state and talk to judges, I find that no one really looks to Denver as an example anymore. One judge told me it's criminal that we've allowed what's happened to kids to go on in Denver. Kids are moved around like furniture. People speak very pejoratively of Denver Juvenile Court, and yet very few people feel a responsibility to change it."

Shink and fellow law-center attorney Ellen Toomey-Hale attribute the lack of progress in the child welfare system to complacency -- not just in Denver, but in all counties. "I don't think anyone doesn't want good outcomes for children, but people who have been working in the system for a long time get lackadaisical and accept the system's way of doing things," says Toomey-Hale, who has seen how the system operates from several viewpoints: as a law clerk in Denver, a probation officer in Arapahoe County, a private-practice attorney, a magistrate in Greeley and a deputy district attorney and court facilitator in Adams County. "When you have a court-appointed attorney who is paid a flat fee and has a huge load of other cases, he can't go out on a limb for a child in a particular case. A lot of attorneys don't take the time to file every motion they can, and often, social workers take whatever relative comes forward; they don't have the manpower to always exhaustively search for the best placement for kids. The system fosters mediocrity."

Toomey-Hale says complacency is furthered when the same attorneys are appointed for parents and kids over and over again. "I was a clerk in Judge [Orrelle] Weeks's office ten years ago, and the same attorneys that were there then are still there now," she says.

Karen Ashby, the presiding judge in Denver Juvenile Court, thinks that Shink and Toomey-Hale's analysis of the situation is too simplistic.

"In the past," Ashby says, "people didn't know the long-term effects of having kids in foster care. There's been a change in philosophy over time. In terms of using the same attorneys, frankly, few attorneys in my court are there because it's a way to make a buck. This is not a place where you get rich. Most people do this kind of work because they feel strongly about it. I don't think it's about complacency. There are a lot of complicated issues involved, but part of it has been the shifting focus from trying to maintain parents' relationships with their kids to protecting the kids' best interests.  

"Resource issues with the DDHS have certainly been part of it, too," she continues. "We're dependent on the department to provide services so parents get what they need in a timely manner."

In 1999, 522 new dependency-and-neglect cases were filed in Denver, but hundreds more were active. Judge Ashby alone has between 800 and 1,000 such cases open at one time -- about half of which involve kids under the age of six. Denver's two other juvenile-court judges, Weeks and Dana Wakefield, carry similar caseloads. (Denver Juvenile Court has recently closed out some of its inactive cases; currently, each of the judges has between 400 and 425 open D&N cases.)

El Paso and Teller counties, which make up the fourth judicial district, had 555 new dependency-and-neglect cases in 1999; in the 18th Judicial District, which consists of Arapahoe, Douglas and Ebert counties, 388 new D&N cases were filed in 1999; Adams County had 358; Pueblo County had 202; Boulder had 123. Smaller counties, such as Mesa and Weld, each had fewer than one hundred new D&N cases in 1999.

To handle its EPP cases, Denver Juvenile Court is changing its docket structure. For the past four years, the three judges have rotated the types of cases they'd handle; one week a judge would hear D&N cases, the next week she'd hear delinquency cases, and the third week she'd hear a mixture of the two. "If we were to keep that three-week rotation, the earliest we'd be able to set a pretrial conference for a certain type of case would be three weeks later," Ashby says. "It was clear that we wouldn't be able to meet the new timelines by continuing that, so we've redone our docket schedule to accept EPP cases and to get cases in general heard more quickly."

Now each of the three judges will be paired with one of the court's four magistrates, who will take turns hearing delinquency and D&N cases every other week; when the judge is hearing the latter, the magistrate will be hearing the former; that way, when a case needs to be set for hearing, it can occur the following week, either in front of the judge or the magistrate, each of whom will be familiar with the cases the other is hearing. The new docket schedule will take full effect in March.

Ashby says that by July, the court plans to apply EPP time frames to all D&N cases, no matter how old the kids are. "The judges in Denver Juvenile Court have been very conscious of trying to get cases heard more quickly. But we can only work efficiently if the other agencies we depend on are doing the same," she explains.

Another change in the system has to do with the balance between parents' rights and kids' rights. That balance is shifting in favor of kids' rights, as evidenced by the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the EPP law.

The new EPP time frames mean that more people may lose their parental rights; after all, twelve months isn't very long for a parent to shake a drug addiction. On the other hand, providing services for parents right away may mean that they'll get on the road to recovery sooner. "We don't want to see terminations [of parental rights] with strangers getting the kids," says DDHS Senior Deputy Manager Donna Good. "We all understand that families are where kids should be, and we'll do everything possible to avoid terminations."

Judge Ashby says that in the past, parents often requested delays to buy themselves more time, and that in many cases, the extra weeks or months they were given to get treatment helped them get their kids back. "Now if they do that, they'll hurt themselves. The legislation has made it clear that the child's interest comes first," she says. "For parents who have substance-abuse problems, it's common for them to relapse. Under EPP, the opportunity to relapse doesn't exist. We may not be able to wait for people who take a long time to recover. The priority is not the parent, it's the child."  

An increase in parental terminations has already been seen in other counties.

The Colorado Department of Human Services and the state judicial department are required to issue a report to the legislature every year to show how EPP is working statewide. In the 1998/1999 fiscal year, the 33 counties that had already implemented EPP provided the state with statistics on 443 children who had been in the system for a year; 80 percent of those kids had been placed in permanent homes within twelve months.

Of those, only 32 percent returned to the home from which they were removed, down from 36 percent the year before. A third were were placed in an adoptive home, and nearly all the rest were placed with another relative.

"There may not be any significant increase in the number of terminations -- it may just appear to be because they're occurring in shorter time frames," says Carol Kelly, permanency planning program specialist for the CDHS. "Prior to EPP, terminations sometimes took three years rather than a year, so it may just feel like there are more."

In the cases in which kids were not placed in permanent homes within a year, the main reason for the delay was that parents were given additional time to complete their treatment plans; the second most common reason that 20 percent of kids weren't in permanent homes in twelve months was that relatives were still being explored as possible caretakers. A study of Jefferson and Boulder Counties -- the first two to implement EPP -- showed that before EPP, only 60 percent of kids were placed in permanent homes within twelve months.

At the June 12, 2000, termination hearing, the DDHS requested a continuance because Ben and Rebecca's caseworker had taken a medical leave. The hearing was rescheduled for July, at which time George's attorney and the DDHS realized that George's relatives had never been contacted as possible caregivers; his parents had just come forward and said they were interested in taking in their grandchildren. The judge continued the termination hearing again, this time until October 24, to give the DDHS time to investigate the grandparents' home and to hold a family-group conference. George's parents were also granted visitation time with Ben and Rebecca.

But when October 24 arrived, the caseworkers explained that because they had been so overworked, they were unable to hold the family-group conference until the day before the hearing. They also said they hadn't had a chance to investigate the grandparents' home. The judge continued the termination hearing to November 15.

Two weeks into EPP in Denver, Liguori had already noticed results; out of the six EPP cases the department handled in early November, permanent placements had been decided on for four kids -- they'll be living with relatives. But she says that sampling is too small to draw any conclusions from; it will be a long time before real results are known. The department will be tracking the outcomes of EPP cases in May, six months after it took effect in Denver; a year later, in November; and then again in November 2002.

Shink says if permanent homes are found for kids in 80 percent of Denver's cases, it will be a success. Other laws and state supreme court directives have been issued in the past to encourage speedier resolutions, she says, but judges have largely ignored them. What makes EPP different, Shink explains, is that now that the court and the human-services department are receiving state money specifically for expediting cases, they'll be held accountable.

Everyone in the many-layered child welfare system -- judges, social workers, attorneys, child advocates, therapists and families -- is betting on this, hoping it fixes what has been broken for too long. "It's a time of either real hope and real possibility or a little step back," says the DDHS's Donna Good. "We just don't know yet."

Adoree Blair keeps a framed photograph of Sarah and her parents in her living room as a reminder of how important the law is. The portrait was taken just before Sarah was returned to her parents. In it, her parents are seated at an angle, looking off to the right. But Sarah, dolled up in a frilly red velvet dress, is staring straight into the camera. She is not smiling, and her eyes hold the look of fear they did so many months before, when she first entered the Blair home.

"EPP was a kind of apology to Sarah, since we couldn't save her," Blair says. "Because of EPP, maybe other babies won't have to go through what she did."


By the November 15 court hearing, the DDHS caseworkers had finally approved the paternal grandparents' home and said they wanted to move Ben and Rebecca there as soon as possible. The judge agreed, and Ben and Rebecca are now living with their grandparents, where they will likely remain. Because the children were placed with relatives, the court won't terminate George and Lisa's parental rights, but it may grant the grandparents permanent parental responsibilities, meaning they won't be able to adopt Ben and Rebecca but will have the decision-making authority of parents.

The judge also said that Lisa and George can have supervised visits with their children once they've completed their treatment plans. So far, neither parent has.

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