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Child-protection failings detailed

Panel seeking reform hears tales of overloaded workers, cuts, poor communication

Denver Post, by David Olinger, Staff Writer, February 01, 2004

Child-protection workers are getting overwhelmed with paperwork requirements and climbing caseloads while programs that could help abused children have been cut statewide.

Social services and police agencies sometimes battle over information about abused children, and victims keep dying with no explanation from a system meant to protect them.

Those were some of the concerns aired Friday by a new commission formed to improve Colorado's child protection system. The group held its first meeting as new state figures show child abuse and neglect cases are growing significantly throughout Colorado.

Statewide, civil court cases concerning children who are neglected, abused or otherwise at-risk jumped 14 percent to 2,116 in the first half of this fiscal year.

In Boulder County, cases jumped 70 percent; in four other populous counties - Douglas, Jefferson, Weld and Adams - caseloads have grown more than 30 percent, according to Office of State Court Administrator records.

Colorado's new child-abuse review commission was formed by state Rep. Debbie Stafford, vice chairwoman of the House committee overseeing social services programs, in response to a Denver Post series on child-abuse deaths.

"I want to walk out of here with legislative proposals that are reasonable and that can be offered, this year," Stafford told 20 people at the meeting.

The meeting produced a broad range of proposals, from public education campaigns and parenting classes in schools to senior volunteer programs that could assist child welfare agencies.

Shari Shink, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center, said Colorado needs to lower its tolerance of child abuse, increase support for an overwhelmed system and create an ombudsman program to improve accountability.

"Kids are dying, and nobody gets to know why," she said.

Carol Chambers, a child abuse prosecutor in Arapahoe County, said she sees cases in which social service agencies will not cooperate with police and professionals fail to report abuse immediately as required by law.

"The concept of 'immediately' is a little bit vague," she said.

Child welfare officials and representatives of nonprofit agencies suggested that financial support may matter more than legislative changes.

"As I drive around Denver, I can't believe that some money can't be pulled from the road system to care for the kids," said Lois Romaine of Lutheran Family Services.

Linda Zschoche, Jefferson County's child welfare manager, suggested a state analysis of workloads for child protection workers.

"Our staff is probably spending 50 to 60 percent of its time on accountability," meeting federal, state and county requirements they refer to as "feeding the machine," she said.

At the same time, growing child- abuse caseloads may require them to take 20 to 25 cases involving 50 to 75 children. By now, they are "too busy to attend a session on burnout," Zschoche said.

Child advocates, legal guardians and court and county officials say Colorado abuse and neglect cases are growing in complexity as well as sheer numbers.

They cite three main factors behind the increase:

A prolonged economic downturn has caused additional stresses, such as unemployment and lost savings for many families, some of whom ultimately take it out on their children.

Those economic woes extended to state government, which cut services at a time of increased needs.

The growing use of methamphetamine in Colorado has left many children neglected by their parents or directly exposed to the drug, drug dealing and weapons.

People throughout the child-protection system say the increase is challenging their ability to help the children involved in hundreds of new Colorado cases each month.

A neglected child's case can get neglected by the system when "caseloads are up but the level of staffing is the same or declining," said John Thirkell, a veteran assistant county attorney in Jefferson County.

"Whether you're a social worker or an attorney or a guardian or a judge, if you have an hour a week to pay attention to a case, it's better than half an hour," he said.

Colorado CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which provides volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children, has found "a steady increase statewide" in requests for help, "and we see it in urban and rural counties," said executive director Barbara Mattison.

She said she sees joblessness and meth use as two major factors. About 85 percent of the children her agency serves come from families receiving some form of public assistance, "which is very indicative to us that the stresses of poverty play an important role," she said. "These aren't happy times for people when they don't have jobs."

The Office of the Child's Representative, which provides guardians to abused and neglected children, recently reported a dramatic case increase in the Denver area.

The court administrator's office records reviewed by The Post count "dependency and neglect" petitions, which usually concern allegations of child abuse or neglect but may also concern runaways, out-of-control teens or families needing help with a mentally ill child.

Court administrator's office records indicate the case increase is less severe statewide but still growing quickly.

"It is a significant increase. It's certainly something to be concerned about," said Daniel Gallagher, its policy analyst for juvenile cases.

"These cases take a lot of time, a lot of resources. They're really second only to first-degree murder cases, in terms of the time it takes," he said.

State court records show that in the past six months, El Paso County filed the most cases, followed by Adams, Jefferson and Denver counties.

Debra Campeau, managing attorney for the El Paso guardian office, counts the war in Iraq as an added factor in the Colorado Springs area.

"Certainly this community has been hit hard by the deployment for the war," she said. That not only created stresses for families missing one or both parents, but the soldiers' absence has "very much a ripple effect through the whole economy."

She said budget cuts for services such as public health nurses for new families haven't helped.

"A lot of these programs have been cut. All of those things have contributed," she said.