Child Protection Ombudsman office criticized in state audit

Lack of documentation, untimely reviews and an organizational structure that sometimes results in the watchdog office investigating the very department that oversees its contract were some of the issues identified in the first-ever audit of the three-year-old Office of Colorado's Child Protection Ombudsman. The office began operating in 2011 with the purpose of serving as a neutral organization to hear grievances about Colorado's child welfare system -- and ultimately, to help better protect children.

See also: Child welfare: Hickenlooper's new plan calls for "common practice approach" in all 64 counties

Among the audit's key findings:

  • Case files were incomplete. The Colorado Office of the State Auditor looked at a sample of twenty case files that represented reviews and investigations done by the ombudsman office, which has the equivalent of three-and-a-half workers. All of the files were missing key information about which staff member took the initial call from the complainant and who was assigned to look into it. Five files had no explanation of how the reviewer reached his or her conclusion and none indicated that the reviewer's conclusion had been reviewed by a supervisor. One file showed that it took two months for the reviewer to begin working on the complaint.
  • Complainants weren't notified about the outcome of their complaints. The audit showed that in six of the twenty cases, there was no evidence that the complainant was told about the outcome of their complaint. In three cases, there was no evidence that the county where the complaint occurred was notified of the outcome, either. In five of the cases, the ombudsman office did not update the database where complaints are logged with the recommendations made to address the complaint.
  • The office suffers from a lack of policies, procedures and contract requirements. The state Department of Human Services pays a nonprofit organization, the National Association of Counsel for Children, to run the ombudsman program. (The budget for fiscal year 2015 is $504,000.) But the audit found that the state department "has not developed written guidance...either through policies, procedures, rules or contract requirements, that specifies when and how the Program should communicate its review or investigation findings and recommendations."

The audit also identified a concern with the structure of the office: While the ombudsman is authorized to investigate complaints against the state Department of Human Services, that very same department decides whether the ombudsman's contract will be renewed. That structure, the audit notes, "may make staff hesitant to conduct investigations and issue reports that reflect negatively upon the Department."

However, auditors "did not find evidence that the Department had infringed upon the Program's independence" -- a finding that the department highlighted in a press release.

Continue for comments from ombudsman Dennis Goodwin. Ombudsman Dennis Goodwin, the second person in three years to hold that position, hopes a working group created by legislation passed earlier this year and tasked with examining the structure of the ombudsman office will provide some guidance about how to improve the office's independence and neutrality. That group is scheduled to convene by August 1 and has until December 1 to issue its report.

"It's not the best system," Goodwin admits. But he's quick to add that "it works. We're providing what we're supposed to and getting more calls than we've ever had."

From January to May 2014, the ombdusman office completed 355 inquiries, reviews and investigations, the audit shows. That's an increase from 295 in 2013 and 134 in 2012.

Goodwin says he recognizes some of the flaws identified in the audit, and the office is taking steps to address them. "This program began three years ago with one person walking in and being told, 'Your doors are open and take calls.' There wasn't a structure set up," he says. The office has since worked to create that structure, he says.

The audit, he says, "paints a picture that there are some process things we need to take care of. (The auditors weren't) charged with getting into 'Are we providing recommendations that help child protection?' I believe we are. In that part, we're well respected.... The credibility is here, the program is sustainable.... We're out there, doing what we're supposed to. But we've got some housekeeping things to take care of.

"It's a matter of making sure that the documentation we do have -- and we do have documentation -- (is) in the file and in a place where we can find it," Goodwin adds. "I think that's what the auditors found. The work is solid but the documentation needs some help."

The audit includes several recommendations -- for example, calling for the state Department of Human Services to develop rules, policies and procedures for case intake, case review and how to report the outcome of investigations. It also recommends that the department better monitor the ombudsman office to make sure it's doing its job. The department has agreed to implement those recommendations by April 2015.

Read the full audit below.

Audit of Child Protection Ombudsman Program

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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