Part One — One Year of COVID: CPO analysts describe the impacts of the pandemic on the child protection system.

One year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic settled into Colorado, the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman (CPO) staff sat together around a conference table to discuss what the next few weeks would entail. Like many agencies, we anticipated staff would work remotely for 2 to 3 weeks. Maybe a month.

This year marks the one-year anniversary of the CPO completely shifting its operations out of its downtown office. During this time, the demand for our services has increased by 40 percent. Citizens involved with the child protection system are calling the CPO more than ever before. The child protection system is a broad and diverse collection of services and agencies intended to ensure the safety, well-being and permanency of children in Colorado. This includes child welfare services, which respond to reports of abuse or neglect of children. Child welfare departments may provide services to families, safety plans and in some instances remove children from their homes to ensure their safety. It also includes the Division of Youth Services (DYS), which oversee the care of youth residing in youth centers across Colorado. These agencies – and the CPO – saw an increase in family stress, spurred for many by isolation, unemployment, health concerns, food insecurity and other impacts of the pandemic.

The CPO and other agencies across Colorado were shifting their practice – sometimes daily – to ensure the safety and well-being of their staff, while also ensuring the safety and well-being of the children and families they serve. During the onset of the pandemic, and throughout the year that followed, the CPO took calls from citizens who were confused, frustrated and scared. We spent hours in statewide stakeholder calls, listening and learning about how agencies were adapting. We took that knowledge and used it to help guide and assist our clients with their immediate needs. But we also monitored the broad impacts of COVID-19 on the child protection system. These issues will continue to impact the child protection system for months or years.

Beginning today, and during the three weeks to follow, the CPO will share how COVID-19 impacted various facets of the child protection system. These impacts include:

  • Delays in court proceedings which are designed to address the permanency of children in the child welfare system and resolve cases in which children have been removed from their homes.
  • Changes in how child protection workers responded to reports of child abuse and neglect and how those changes impacted families receiving services.
  • Impacts on required visitations between children who were removed from their homes and their parents who were working to have them returned.
  • How the DYS worked to monitor, prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 inside youth centers across Colorado.

Below is the first of four posts.

Delayed court proceedings impact child welfare cases across Colorado

The CPO monitored the impacts of postponed court proceedings in Colorado and the impact it had on child welfare practice, particularly in rural communities with fewer resources to adapt to virtual hearings.

By Amanda Pennington, Client Services Director

The COVID-19 pandemic has widely affected court-involved child welfare cases. Such cases often involve circumstances in which county human services departments are attempting to return a child to a parent, address services delays, or, in some cases, terminate a parent’s rights to a child.

Child welfare departments are responsible for responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect.  When a child is found to have been abuse or neglected, a department will identify the need for a court case. Through this court process, parents are responsible for making behavioral changes so that their children can return to their homes safely. All major decisions regarding the safety and permanency of a child are made in the court case through a variety of hearings, including decisions regarding where children are placed, visitation between parents and children and returning children to the care of their parents. Court hearings are instrumental in ensuring that the parents’ legal rights are upheld, parents are seeing their children, safety concerns are addressed and that children achieve stability in a timely manner.

Initially, the Colorado Supreme Court issued an order that all courts would move operations to an emergency basis. For child welfare, this meant that only emergent requests for custody would be heard. These hearings focused solely on emergency requests to remove children from their homes to ensure their safety and well-being. All non-emergent hearings were cancelled. The same order would allow individual judicial districts discretion as they worked to respond to the pandemic. As courthouses reopened, Colorado’s 22 judicial districts had to work rapidly to modify their ability to hold virtual hearings and meetings.

Through the review of its own cases and its participation in dozens of stakeholder calls during the past year, the CPO found that rural jurisdictions struggled to obtain the necessary infrastructure to support an all-virtual docket. Difficulties included strapped budgets that restricted the ability to purchase new equipment and even in some remote areas, money would not mitigate the issue that high-speed internet is not available equitably throughout Colorado.

Several months into the pandemic, it became apparent that there was a severe need for guidance on how to adjust child welfare practice to these ever-changing circumstances in the courts. The impact to families with court-involved cases was severe.

The CPO heard from several citizens impacted by these delays. Their cases involved:

  • A hearing that would have returned a child to their parents’ care was postponed for more than 60 days.
  • The delay of hearings to terminate parental rights delayed the potential adoption of some children.
  • Canceled or postponed trials that ultimately delayed court-ordered treatment plans for parents.
  • Delays in juvenile review and placement hearings which prevented timely placement of youth in the community or returning youth to their homes.

In June 2020, in light of the ongoing pandemic, the Children’s Bureau provided federal guidance regarding circumstances in which child welfare agencies would seek to terminate a parent’s rights (TPR). The updated guidelines provided exceptions that should be contemplated by child welfare agencies when this is being considered. Federal guidance acknowledges that services were gravely impacted by the pandemic. And that a child welfare agency’s ability to make reasonable efforts to provide services were also likely impacted for the same reasons. As such, the guidance state that TPR should only be filed after parents have had consistent and meaningful access to the services that would support reunification with their children.

The CPO has continued to work with clients who express concern, frustration or confusion regarding the delays in the court process. As courtrooms are able to accommodate more proceedings, the CPO will also monitor how these systems clear the current backlog of court-involved child welfare cases and the impact the delays have had on Colorado’s families.

Amanda Pennington has worked at the CPO for two years and currently serves as the CPO’s Director of Client Services. Prior to joining the CPO, Ms. Pennington worked directly with children and families for more than six years in her roles with child welfare services and public health in Mesa County. She is a certified caseworker who has completed more than 200 hours of continuing education in addition to the Child Welfare Training Academy.