Monday, March 5, 2012

Colorado considers easing rules on child-abuse investigations

By Jordan Steffen

Barely two weeks after state officials announced a plan to reduce the number of children who die after entering Colorado's child welfare program, the same agency began work Friday to relax rules dictating when caseworkers must investigate reports of abuse and neglect.

The Colorado Department of Human Services is proposing a change that would remove a rule requiring that county social workers automatically open an investigation if they receive three reports of child abuse or neglect within two years — and the first two referrals were not investigated. Instead, social workers would examine prior contacts with the child — such as any actions taken and services provided — to determine whether an investigation is warranted.

Julie Krow, head of the department's Office of Children, Youth and Families, and Judy Rodriguez, assistant director of the Division of Child Welfare, presented the proposal at Friday's meeting of the State Board of Human Services.

The rule change could help conserve limited resources and allow social workers to focus on cases that may be more severe, Rodriguez said.

"Supervisors look at each case and approve or disapprove a referral," Rodriguez said. "They are the ones who know their communities."

Opponents of the rule change said the proposal is based on anecdotes instead of data.

"In a time when we've had 43 child deaths, one would think that we would be trying to figure out how to address our own accountability," said Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. "We don't need to be worrying about giving discretion to the caseworkers, but we should figure out what went wrong in the discretion that was already given."

An investigation by The Denver Post in January showed that in the past five years, 43 children died after entering the state's child welfare system. In every one of the deaths — which occurred in 18 counties — social workers repeatedly failed to complete basic functions, according to a review of state investigative reports.

In 17 of those cases, county social workers failed to start an investigation after a report of abuse or neglect warranted one.

Friday's discussion occurred less than a month after the department opened its second child fatality review this year — an Adams County boy allegedly killed by his grandmother.

Such an investigation is opened whenever a child's death is a result of abuse or neglect and there was contact with the child welfare system during the two previous years.

Board members are selected by Gov. John Hickenlooper and operate outside of the department. The board holds public hearings on the first Friday of every month to discuss proposed changes to the rules that regulate county child welfare departments.

Friday, board members expressed mixed responses to the proposed rule changes. Some said they worried that changing the rule could result in children falling through the cracks, while others advocated for more county control.

"We're trusting people to make the first judgment, we're trusting them to make the second, but for some reason we're not trusting them to make the third," said Stephen Johnson, board member and county commissioner for Larimer County.

REAL Colorado, an initiative of Colorado Counties Inc., suggested the rule change to the state department last fall.

The board approved the proposal to go forward to a final adoption hearing, scheduled for April 6. Before then, the board requested data about who is making the referrals and how many each county receives.


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