Championing the cause of the children

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Months of laborious compromises prefaced the unveiling of a bill Thursday that would create a child ombudsman office that Gov. Bill Ritter said will add accountability to a troubled child welfare system.

Senate Bill 10-171, sponsored by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, would establish the Child Protection Ombudsman under the supervision of Ritter and Karen Beye, the executive director for the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). The office would be independent from the department’s Division of Child Welfare.

Newell, 2009’s freshman senator of the Year, said the purpose of the ombudsman office would be to serve as a watchdog to the state supervised and county administered child welfare system.

To maintain the ombudsman’s watchdog status, Ritter and Beye agreed with Newell to contract the office’s operation to an independent non-profit group.

That deal, unpopular among child advocacy groups who support an office that’s fully independent from the state department, is one compromise of many that Newell orchestrated to strengthen support for her bill.

“The bill gives as much flexibility as possible to the governor and the executive director, but they’re selecting to do it by contract so that the advocates feel that it has more impartiality to it,” Newell said.

The ombudsman office would be a resource for at-risk children, parents, and foster care providers to direct complaints or questions to a non-governmentally funded department. State workers could also make complaints without fear of reprisal, Newell said. The bill states the office would also be charged with making recommendations to the state in order to improve the system.

“Too often there are individuals and families in the child protection system who don’t feel that they have a voice,” Beye said. “They don’t feel they are able to share in the same neutral environment of what they think should be done with their family and how they could be engaged.

“The child protection ombudsman program is going to be one way in Colorado that we are able to do that,” she said.

Newell has gained powerful bi-partisan support in the form of co-sponsorships from both tiers of the General Assembly. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, Senate Minority leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, are among those who pledge support in the Senate. Rep. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, will carry the bill if it reaches the House and Reps. B.J Nikkel, R-Loveland, Frank McNulty, R- Highlands Ranch, Joe Rice, D- Littleton, and Claire Levy, D-Boulder, will join as co-sponsors.

“It is of dire importance that we address the problems and inconsistencies in our child protection system,” Shaffer said. “Senator Newell has done great work to address this complicated issue and help protect Colorado’s children.”

The child ombudsman program is modeled after the long-term care ombudsman program, which has been in existence under CDHS for 30 years, Newell said. Like the long-term care ombudsman, the child’s ombudsman office will have full access to all the same information as the Department of Human Services. That appeases advocates’ fears that the ombudsman’s lack of subpoena power would render it toothless.

“The ombudsman needs to have the ability to investigate and get access to information that they need in order to make sure that they really have a good understanding of what has happened in any particular case,” said Maureen Farrell-Stevenson, president and CEO of the National Association of Counsel for Children located at the Kempe Children’s Center in Denver. Newell said the Kempe Center non-profit is a candidate to operate the ombudsman office if the bill passes.

A similar measure establishing a child’s ombudsman failed in 2004 when lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to fund the program, according to the bill’s sponsor, former Rep. Debbie Stafford, D-Aurora. Newell’s bill carries no fiscal note and will be funded by gifts, grants and donations.

Bob Cooper, CEO of the Tennyson Center, established for children suffering from emotional abuse and neglect, said the ombudsman program would greatly benefit from private donations, which he thinks would be ample.

“I think that helps with the independence piece of it, because those people that contribute their private dollars to help this thing go are going to want some assurance that they’re contributing to something that really is making a difference and isn’t just a rubber stamp on the state’s system,” Cooper said. “I will tell you that there are private dollars out there to support this thing.”

The idea of a child’s ombudsman was resurrected in 2007. That year 13 children died who were already enrolled in the state’s protective custody, including Chandler Grafner, a 7-year-old boy who starved to death. Gov. Ritter responded by creating the Child Welfare Action Committee, which last year offered 29 recommendations to improve the system, including the ombudsman program.

“In 2007-2008 we experienced what I believe, and I think many people believe, was an unacceptably high number of deaths among Colorado children” under the watchful eye of Human Services, Gov. Ritter said Thursday during a press conference at the Capitol announcing the ombudsman legislation.“The committee studied advocacy offices in other states and looked at how this type of approach would serve the children of Colorado.”

Since 2007, 22 children in state protective custody have died.

A black eye was delivered to the state last December when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported Colorado was out of federal compliance with standards of abuse in home care, foster placement stability and child safety.

“We cannot wait for one more child to be bruised, starved or even die while in our protective custody,” Newell said at Thursday’s press conference. “The Child Protection Ombudsman can be one of the tools that could bring to our attention ideas for improvement, collaboration of resources and best practices to prevent children from falling through the cracks.”

Professionals in the field blame the cracks in child welfare on programs that are underfunded and understaffed.

“But I’m not sure there’s a perfect system anywhere in the nation,” Farrell-Stevenson said.

Last year, the state’s fewer than 1,800 caseworkers handled 76,144 referrals of suspected child abuse or neglect — 64,745 of which yielded follow-up assessments, according to CDHS. In 2007 the Every Child Matters Education Fund found that Colorado was 22nd in the country in child welfare spending per capita with $81 spent per Coloradan.

Newell said a lot of problems and confusion with Colorado’s child welfare system stem from the state supervised, county administered infrastructure. While the state is responsible for funding 80 percent of county delivered services, the counties are responsible for everything else — from staffing and raising additional funding, to effectively administering the services.

“There are 64 sets of business rules, 64 sets of IT programs, and just 64 different ways that they are doing things,” Newell said. “Its really hard if you have child who starts in one county and moves to another.”

Ritter’s action committee suggested that the current system be abandoned for one centrally administered by the state. But the counties rejected the recommendation, which would have centralized child protection services within several large regions, grouping counties and revenues together.

Ritter said the recommendation could be revisited later this year.

“Counties expressed not just a concern, but a very serious concern,” the governor said. “And instead of trying to move that in this legislative session, really without the political will in the coalition we’ve been able to build on these other 27 recommendations, we made the determination to allow more period of input and then recommendations to flow next October.”

The counties’ resistance to change has been a sever headache for advocates who see major gaps in the current system.

“I think it is about power and I think when you have unrestrained power, you don’t want anyone looking over your shoulder and checking that power,” said Shari Shink, the executive director at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center and member of Ritter’s action committee. “This is a very difficult system to navigate unless you are a part of it and you know who to call and what to do if you don’t get a response.”

Balancing the needs of all the stakeholders was a two-month enigma for Newell who worked through a series of compromises to produce the ombudsman bill last week. The senator said she redrafted her bill at least six times and used three extensions before its introduction.

“I am a person who believes in consensus and I am a person who believes in negotiation and win-win solutions. But when you’re dealing with this many stakeholders it can be quite a nightmare,” she said.

The hot-button issue that separated child advocates from other stakeholders early on was the ombudsman’s independence. While advocates pulled for the office’s full independence, the state and county departments pulled right back, Newell said.

“We have been supportive over the last five or six months of trying to get an ombudsman bill drafted and the only sticking point that we’ve had was the independence,” said Pat Ratliff, lobbyist for Colorado Counties Inc., a lobby group representing all Colorado counties. “We felt it needed to be no different than the current long-term care ombudsman, which is a position directly under the executive director of the Department of Human Services, but otherwise independent of state government.”

Ratliff said that county directors have yet to take an official position on the bill. However, she thinks it currently reflects what the directors said they were seeking in an office similar to the long-term care ombudsman.

Larry Henderson, Alamosa’s director of human services, said last week he hadn’t yet made up his mind regarding the ombudsman bill, but said the office’s independence wouldn’t be an issue. Henderson, however, did state skepticism about adding a government program.

“I’m not sure it’s an answer for a problem that doesn’t even exist,” he said.

Lundberg, senate co-sponsor to the bill, said he’s supporting the ombudsman program even though he never votes for new government programs.

“This is probably the only new program I’m supporting all year,” Lundberg said. “I place this one pretty high, assuming this bill really is going to do what I’m expecting it to do, and that is to lift that veil of secrecy from the process of child protective services.”

Lundberg will join the Health and Human Services Committee in a vote Thursday that would open the bill up for senate debate, if approved. Assuming it passes, Lundberg expects the bill to net widespread bi-partisan support because it involves the wellbeing of children.

If the ombudsman bill is signed into law, Beye holds the responsibility for putting together an advisory committee that will develop a detailed design for the program. The committee will also weigh bids from non-profits who wish to operate the program.

Only nine of the approximate 29 child ombudsman offices in the nation are currently independent in some capacity, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Connecticut established a child ombudsman office, titled the “child’s advocate” in the late 90’s. Current child advocate, Jeanne Milstein, credits her office’s success to its independence.

“We’ve recently ended up doing sweeping reforms at one of our boys correctional facilities,” Milstein said. “Without our independence, those investigations would go away because everything would be done internally behind a steel curtain.”

The ombudsman bill is one of several this session involving child welfare services.

Newell is also sponsoring the Mandatory Reporter Child Abuse bill, SB10-152, which concerns workers in positions that are statutorily required to report suspected child abuse — usually school employees, hospital officials, or anybody who works with children. The bill would require county social services to report back to mandatory reporters with information regarding the case, like whether or not it was resolved.

“One of the problems with the process now is reporters don't hear back from the counties and don’t know if a child was actually being abused,” Newell said.

In the House, Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, is sponsoring a bill headed for its final reading. The Differential Response bill, HB-1226, would establish a pilot project in five volunteer counties that would train case workers to identify crisis calls of low to moderate severity. Those calls would be handled differently than high crisis calls that immediately enter an investigative phase.

“Child safety is paramount but when it’s a situation of low to moderate severity, there’s a greater potential for working with a family,” Kefalas said. “The idea is to work with the family and help it to strengthen what assets the family does have and keep that child with the family.

Newell is confident that correcting the fragmented child welfare system will be a top priority for state lawmakers once all her colleges are fully educated on the system.

“It's like the unspoken crisis,” she said. “Once people find out how serious and dire it is, there’s not a person I’ve met that hasn’t said, ‘why are we not doing something?’”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com