Child-abuse deaths: Department of Human Services director apologizes to lawmakers for late reports

Earlier this afternoon, state Department of Human Services Director Karen Beye sat before a committee of lawmakers and apologized. It's "clearly unacceptable" that the department failed to complete timely fatality reviews on ten of the eleven children who died of abuse in 2008 after having had involvement with their county child welfare department, she said.

"I never intend to do a visit like this again," Beye added.

The snafu comes as child welfare advocates are pushing several bills aimed at improving services in Colorado in the wake of numerous high-profile child deaths in 2007. It caught the attention of lawmakers, including Senator Josh Penry, who, according to the Denver Post, called for the creation of a committee to investigate the problem. But first, Beye explained what happened to the House Health and Human Service Committee today.

Whenever a child dies of abuse in Colorado, the county in which that child lived does an investigation. (In Colorado, child welfare services are delivered by the counties and overseen by the state.) If the county finds that the child was "known" to it's child welfare department, it reviews what, if anything, went wrong in terms of the county's involvement.

That report is sent to the state, which determines if the county violated any policies. If the state finds that it did, corrective actions must be taken. The county has the right to rebut any state findings. The report is then finalized and sent back to the county.

That last step is where the system broke down, Beye said. The 2008 fatality reviews were the responsibility of two staff members, she said, who left the department voluntarily (in other words, they weren't fired) before the final reports were sent to the counties.

The department became aware of the missing reports in January, thanks to the child welfare director from Larimer County, Beye said. The department then scrambled to find the reports, finalize them and send them out, which it did last Thursday.

Beye said the department has put in place new safeguards to make sure this never happens again, including monthly "update" meetings on the status of all fatality reviews.

She said the reviews are one way the state keeps tabs on the counties' child welfare departments and determines if there are ways to improve them. But she also said that some child deaths -- especially cases where the family isn't "known" to the system -- will always be unpreventable. In fact, the number of child deaths increased in 2009 to fifteen.

Beye hopes a handful of bills up for approval this year will help change that, including a bill that would create a child-welfare ombudsman office and one that would speed up the process of transferring open child welfare cases from county to county to keep up with transient families.

She did have one piece of good news, however: She said the department hasn't had to complete a single child fatality review yet in 2010.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar