Child welfare ombudsman: Panel looking to prevent deaths like Chandler Grafner's

Today, a fifteen-member panel is meeting for the first time to hammer out the details of Colorado's forthcoming child welfare ombudsman office. The office will provide parents, caregivers, neighbors and others with a place to be heard if they have concerns about a child's welfare -- and they feel those concerns aren't being addressed by the county's child welfare workers.

The idea sounds simple. But passing a law to make it happen wasn't.

It started in April 2008, when Governor Bill Ritter established the Child Welfare Action Committee, charged with studying whether Colorado's child welfare system was working. Some suspected it wasn't, after thirteen children who were "known to the system" died in 2007. One of the children was seven-year-old Chandler Grafner, whose horrific story of being starved to death at the hands of his county-approved guardians made headlines.

The committee worked for a year and a half to come up with twenty-nine recommendations, including the establishment of a child ombudsman office. Some members, such as Shari Shink, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, were in favor of the ombudsman from the start. "There's no overarching accountability in our system," she says. "That's why the office of the children's ombudsman is, in my view, one of most single important recommendations."

Other members, like Adams County Department of Human Services Director Don Cassata, weren't thrilled at first. In an interview several months ago, he and Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman said they were supportive of the final recommendation but had some concerns about how it would be implemented given Colorado's county-run, state-supervised child welfare structure.

"The worst thing that could happen is that you have a bureaucratic office that starts taking all of these complaints," Beckman said. "Their work would be to create a consistent review process so individual counties can do their own reviews."

Ritter signed a bill to create the ombudsman office last month. The panel that convened today has ninety days to "develop a detailed plan for how the ombudsman program will be run," says Department of Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough, adding that the department must put out requests for proposals thirty days after that.

We hope that whatever the structure of the ombudsman office, it helps to prevent more child deaths. Deaths like that of eight-month-old Joziah Romero.

Joziah died of asphyxiation on December 18, 2008, after becoming wedged between the mattress and the side of his crib, according to a state child fatality review report. The crib had been broken for two weeks and his mother, Reanna Brock, had failed to fix it.

Brock had other problems, as well. On November 25, just a few weeks before Joziah died, the Thornton police showed up at her house for a well-being check. They found Joziah on the floor with a bottle in his mouth, Reanna in the shower and two men in the house, both of whom had outstanding arrest warrants. The house was a mess, they said, and there were no clean clothes anywhere.

When Adams County child welfare workers followed up, Brock promised she was doing laundry. She also said she may be depressed. The grandmothers of her two children and Joziah's father had a different concern: that Brock was using drugs. They said she partied a lot, left the kids with family members for days on end and never cleaned the house.

But when asked about drug use by a caseworker, Brock denied it. However, she also said she wanted a referral for counseling. Three weeks later, Brock found Joziah dead in his defective crib. There's no record that she ever got that referral.

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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