Lawmakers on Monday heard from child welfare, law enforcement and health care experts on how drugs are endangering Colorado’s children in light of the recent passage of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in the state.
The first presentation this year to the Colorado Children’s Caucus — a bipartisan gathering of lawmakers concerned with issues facing Colorado youth — turned into less of a discussion on marijuana, and more about the child welfare system.
Legislators have grown increasingly concerned with child protection in Colorado after a investigation revealed that out of 175 children who died of abuse and neglect in the last six years, 72 of them had families or caregivers who were known to caseworkers before their deaths.
Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, with the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, said part of the problem is a lack of coordination between the agencies intervening in child abuse and neglect cases, including social services and law enforcement.
“There’s no requirement that law enforcement and child protection services actually work together, collaborate and share data…” he told lawmakers. “We were astonished to find what we were missing when we didn’t actually work together.
“I really missed the boat about taking a much harder look at incidents and forms of maltreatment that weren’t simply a broken bone, or a bruise, or a sex assault,” Gerhardt added. “What typically in law enforcement we miss are a lot of neglect factors, and neglect typically results in more child fatalities nationally than physical abuse… Is there a way to bring some clarity through the legislative process to these incidents so that they can be caught before they turn really, really bad?”
Dr. Kathryn Wells, a child abuse pediatrician with Denver Health, agreed that collaboration is the key, including input from the medical community. But she said to truly impact the problem, more needs to be done to address substance abuse.
“I saw a lot of families affected by substance abuse, and I think we need to start having honest discussions about how can we identify these problems early on and hopefully get folks the help that they need,” explained Wells. “I would love to be out of a job as a child abuse pediatrician, and be able to help poor families in the way that we would like to, rather than have them destroyed by some of the horrific cases that I unfortunately see.”
Nationally, 9.2 million children in the United States live in homes where a parent, or other member of the household, uses illicit drugs, according to a presentation offered by the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman. In Colorado in 2008, an estimated 37,000 children ages 12-17 were using drugs. The number for adults was 401,000. The child protection officials estimated that 80 percent of families involved in the child protection system have substance abuse problems.
“These are just the people we know, not all users report that they use drugs, and not all people are honest about that,” said Associate Ombudsman Stacee Read.
She explained to lawmakers that part of the problem with addressing drug abuse within the child welfare system is training human services officials and employees to be able to identify drug use.
“We don’t know what to do with these; we don’t know how to make that assessment; I don’t know what paraphernalia looks like; I wouldn’t know a drug if it hit me in the face,” implored Read.
But lawmakers appear conflicted with how to deal with the problem. Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, pointed out that his conservative values caution him not to push for more government intervention. He co-chairs the caucus with Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Reps. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, and Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs.
“I believe in limited government, I believe that we get too involved in too many families too often,” he said. “But I also believe in the best interest of children, and believe that we need to have the entire spectrum of discussion at the table when we deal with these most critical issues that really effect virtually everyone at some point in time, and some people all the time.”
Singer, who is a social worker, said he did not want to place the blame on human services officials.
“I’m going to stick up for some of my caseworkers in Boulder County…” he said. “There are caseworkers who are actually pretty well trained in terms of generally understanding the identifying factors in drug abuse.
“But with the way that drugs have changed, with new designer drugs, there’s always room for training…” Singer added.
Michael Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, is concerned that lawmakers could turn the discussion on child protection into an assault on voter-approved marijuana legalization. He points out that teen marijuana use in Colorado has decreased by 3 percent between 2009 and 2011 when the state allowed for the sale of medical marijuana through licensed and taxed businesses.
Elliott believes legitimate concerns are being raised about the impact of drugs on the child protection system, and he said his group is willing to work with lawmakers on potential solutions.
“There are very legitimate concerns about how best to protect kids, especially with the new law having passed,” he said. “So, we have to find appropriate balances.”
The Colorado Children’s Caucus will receive another six presentations to examine historic trends, data and evidence-based best practices in search of improvement in services or solutions to meet challenges facing children and families. The caucus could propose legislation to be introduced throughout the legislative session. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 11.