Governor Ritter wants to revamp Colorado's human-services system

Thirteen children whose families had been brought to the attention of child protection workers still died as the result of abuse or neglect in Colorado in late 2007 and early 2008, prompting Governor Bill Ritter to establish the Child Welfare Action Committee last April. "One child's death is too many," he said. "The fact that we are talking about thirteen deaths is outrageous. ... We should be outraged that we aren't providing adequate training to our front-line caseworkers. We should be angry that our data-entry and computer-tracking systems have huge gaps. We should be angry about missed warning signs, and we should be angry that years of audits and studies have not done more to keep children alive."

He charged his committee with the daunting task of reducing the neglect, injury and fatality rates of Colorado's children. Although it still has a year's worth of investigation to go, an interim report released October 31 lays out some initial recommendations and divides the project into four categories: administrative structure, child and family outcomes, cultural competency and training.

Megan Ferland, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, sits on the administrative structure subcommittee, which is taking a hard look at whether the state needs to completely reorganize its human-services system. Colorado now has a state-supervised, county-administered structure, under which the state passes money to largely autonomous county human-services departments. "In early research, the thing that becomes apparent really quick is that there is no state anywhere that has the perfect system," Ferland says. "States are doing different pieces well, so how can we learn from what other states are doing, and how can we apply that to what will work best in Colorado? We may wind up with the same overarching structure but really working to strengthen state oversight and communication from county to county, or we could wind up with an entirely different structure."

The outcomes subcommittee spent the last six months looking at quick changes, and in the October 31 report recommended new rules that would require agencies to tell mandatory reporters — those who are obligated to report child abuse — whether a referral led to an assessment. "We're trying to make the system more transparent," says Skip Barber, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies. As the outcomes group continues its work, it will tackle more difficult questions related to best practices and accountability. "One thing we're trying is to make the system more family-friendly, separating out intensive child-protection cases from the cases where local counties could act more as a resource and support for families," he explains. "We're looking at how to identify the cases that need intensive intervention and the ones where it doesn't have to be so adversarial."

The underlying question, Barber adds, is how much of what has gone wrong is the result of chronic underfunding: "We can say the system's supposed to work like this, but if it's not funded to do what we need to do and we give caseworkers unmanageable jobs, some things are going to fall through the cracks." His subcommittee has already recommended a workload study be done so that everyone understands exactly what employees are being asked to do, with what resources. That study might illuminate another challenge the system faces: turnover. "How do we make this not something kids out of college take as a first job, then move on quickly because it's very demanding and high-stress?" Barber asks. "Everyone blames the system. If caseworkers step out and say, 'We want to intervene,' the family and community get upset. And if they don't, then the family and the community get upset. It's kind of a no-win situation. Someone's always mad at them. That's why we have to address some of those things and figure out how to support them appropriately."

That's where the training subcommittee comes in. "That was one of the things that led to the formation of the Child Welfare Action Committee," says Art Atwell, the state's director of Workforce Development Services. "We wanted to increase the amount of training that we had been providing." Right now his group is focusing on training for new staff. Currently, caseworkers are still finishing training courses as late as a year after they've been handling cases, and child-abuse hotline staffers don't necessarily receive any training. As a result, Ritter last month asked the Joint Budget Committee to dedicate $11.4 million to a new Child Welfare Training Academy. "Hopefully, it will get through the legislative process," Atwell says.

Rebecca Hobart, executive director of Ariel Clinical Services, which provides foster care in Grand Junction, is on the cultural-competence subcommittee. Kids of color have poorer outcomes in general across Colorado and the country, she says, and training could be key. "So what we've been doing is trying to identify through data if there is bias occurring at different decision points in the child-welfare process," she notes. "What's hard about it, I think, is that it's sort of an invisible problem. We know bias exists in our culture and in our country, but it's not easy to identify and it's not easy to talk about. People have a hard time getting their heads around, 'Did I just make a decision because I have a belief about this culture? Am I applying the same standards to all people regardless of race?' It takes really exploring people's beliefs and values. I think one of the strongest recommendations we will make to the governor is the importance of educating all caseworkers and service providers in being culturally competent, and part of that is really exploring their own bias."

Seventeenth District Court Judge Katherine Delgado, the only judge on the committee, has been working on the issue of institutional racism for the past two years. Children of color are overrepresented in the country's child-welfare system, she says, adding that their cases are also open longer, it takes longer for them to be returned home, or — if their parents' rights are terminated — it takes longer for them to be adopted. Her courtroom has been designated a model court by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and it's become a laboratory for change. "For example," she explains, "when parents are going through a D&N case, the court approves a treatment plan, and the treatment plans are to rectify the issue that brought the family to the court's attention. My responsibility is to make sure the right kinds of services are being provided. Are they culturally appropriate? Have we been fair to kin, really looked at kin? Most people would agree kids do better with family than they do in foster care.... I'm doing this work five days a week, and I want the system to be able to reunify children with their families and give parents an opportunity to be successful by having better treatment available, making sure children are placed with family when appropriate, giving foster parents the training and support they need, giving kin support and training and financial assistance."

So far, Delgado's been trying to make changes by just spending more time. "Longer hearings make for longer days," she says, "but those are things you can do without money."

While money may be in short supply, there's no shortage of ideas that the committee and its four subcommittees are looking into. "There's not a person in that field who's there for any reason other than to help kids," Ferland says. "You don't get into this field to get rich."

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Jessica Centers