Colorado announces sweeping reforms to child welfare system
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday revealed sweeping reforms to the state’s child welfare system, including a multipart plan that will create a statewide hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect, new training on how to assess those reports, and a study of workloads and caseloads of child protection workers.
The plan also will steer resources to troubled families before actual abuse and neglect occur by delivering services through nurses, parenting classes and additional resources.
“We want to make sure that we keep kids healthy and safe and that we stabilize families because we know that stable families are the best launching pads there are for kids to have successful lives,” Hickenlooper said at a news conference inside the state Capitol.
Hickenlooper will ask the legislature to dedicate $20 million to the reforms for the next fiscal year, nearly a third of which will come from recent reductions in the number of children incarcerated by the juvenile system. Much of the rest will come from increased tax revenues due to an improved economic climate, officials said.
The state projects that an additional $8 million annually will be available over the next five years because of a waiver from the federal government that allows the state more flexibility in how it spends child protection money.
“We want to ensure that every child in the state has well-trained, well-prepared caseworkers and supervisors with the right tools to ensure their safety,” said Reggie Bicha, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Call for answers
The reforms follow an eight-day series published by The Denver Post in cooperation with 9News in November. The series found that 72 of the 175 children who have died of abuse and neglect in Colorado in the past six years had families or caregivers known to child protection workers. Since the launch of the series, an additional 17 children died of abuse or neglect in Colorado. Two of them were known to child protection workers.
The Post found that child protection workers did not follow state policy and regulations more than half the time when they tried to protect children who eventually died. Following the series, both the public and lawmakers demanded explanations for those children’s deaths and improvements in how a child’s case is handled.
State Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, who is one of several lawmakers working with the Department of Human Services and counties to draft legislation, read the stories of more than 50 of the children included in the series, she said.
“We’re all sad and appalled by this information,” she said. “We may not be able to prevent every child death by abuse, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
Hickenlooper announced a five-point improvement plan almost a year ago. On Wednesday, Hickenlooper, joined by Bicha and state lawmakers, announced a new wave of reforms for child welfare.
“I think we have been making progress with our most vulnerable children,” Hickenlooper said. “We recognize this isn’t just government’s job. It is a goal of healthy families and healthy communities.”
Bicha explained that the additional improvements will be focused on the “front end” of the child welfare system and will target prevention efforts, how child abuse and neglect are reported, and how those reports are assessed.
“Children should not have to experience abuse and neglect before we provide them and their families the services they need,” Bicha said. “That’s why we are investing in services that will assist families before they become a part of the child welfare system.”
A public awareness campaign will launch in addition to the hotline, which will provide one number for people to call if they have a concern or report of child abuse.
Help for caseworkers
The state will offer new training programs for hotline and child protection workers to ensure that reports contain all necessary information and are shared and assessed properly, Bicha said.
New training programs will help hotline workers and child protection workers properly assess reports of child abuse in making decisions about their care and create more consistent practices across county departments.
In the past, protocols for when to launch an investigation were made on a county-by-county basis, allowing for wide variations. The reforms call for consistent criteria to be given to the people making those decisions.
The plan also includes measures to finance purchasing new smartphones and computer tablets so child protection workers can finish reports while they are outside the office — when, for example, they are waiting to make a court appearance.
The Post investigation also revealed that the state lacked the ability to track caseworkers’ workloads.
A group of lawmakers expects to deliver a letter to the state auditor as early as next week, requesting a study of the workloads and caseloads carried by child protection workers, Nicholson said. The reform initiative will make available money for the state auditor to contract with an outside consultant to conduct the caseload and workload study, Bicha said. Such studies have been recommended numerous times in the past by child advocates. In the past, state officials have opted not to pay for one.
Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, president of Colorado Counties Inc., a lobbying group for county officials, and Donna Rohde, director of Otero County’s Department of Human Services and the president of the Colorado Human Services Directors Association, gave a joint interview with Bicha after Wednesday’s news conference.
“You bet it makes a difference in terms of productivity,” Davidson said of the plans for providing smartphones and computer tablets to caseworkers. He also praised plans for additional resources for county officials to offer services to families before abuse occurs.
The plan also includes training for “mandatory reporters,” such as doctors or school teachers, who are required by law to report suspected abuse and neglect. The new training will better explain what happens when a report is made and what factors are considered when deciding whether to remove a child from the home.
The state will also work to improve on transparency by building a website where the public can see how county child welfare departments are faring at protecting children.
In addition, the state also will make available more money for core service programming, which delivers services aimed at allowing families to remain intact and preventing a child from getting placed into foster care.
The Denver Post investigation revealed the state lacked the ability to track workloads, how many caseworkers were on staff and whether they were disciplined for policy violations. The state plans to hire a consultant to study the workloads and caseloads within the department.
A statewide, toll-free hotline will be set up to take reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. The state will launch new training programs for hotline and child protection workers to ensure that reports contain all necessary information and are shared and assessed properly.
$20 million in state funds this year and $8 million in federal money each of the next five years will go to improve child abuse prevention programs and training. The federal funding comes through a waiver in how Colorado uses money that had been tied to spending on foster care.
Smartphone and tablet technology will be utilized so caseworkers can do paperwork remotely, between visiting homes of children. Caseworkers say they work 60-hour weeks and spend additional hours at home at night filling out paperwork in the state computer system.
The state will make available more money for services aimed at allowing families to remain intact. Other prevention money will deliver services through nurses, parenting classes and other resources — with the goal of reducing child abuse by 50 percent in seven years.