Child Protection Ombudsman voices concerns to child welfare interim committee

The CPO appeared before the Colorado Child Welfare System Interim Study Committee on June 27 to present on four critical issues facing children and families involved in the state’s child welfare and protection systems.

“As we look for solutions, we must think about accountability and transparency along a continuum for all of us stakeholders,” said Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte. “This list is but a sampling of the issues that our agency sees. These issues are going to be vitally important to instilling confidence in our child welfare system.”

Among the concerns outlined by the CPO was insufficient monthly contacts from county agencies with the parents involved in their child welfare cases. State regulations require monthly face-to-face meetings with parents or other caregivers but data from the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) reveals statewide compliance hasn’t exceeded 47 percent in each of the past five years. The CPO recommended forming a working group within the Colorado Supreme Court Improvement Program to analyze and address the issue.

“Members of the committee today express concern about how we treat parents,” Villafuerte said. “One of those issues is we have to start seeing them. This is not a disparagement of county human service workers. This is a discussion about analyzing caseworkers’ bandwidth and trying to figure out how do we expand our human service worker’s ability to be in contact with families the way that they need to be.”

Repeating issues initially raised by the CPO in 2017, Tuesday’s presentation highlighted the absence of statewide ethical standards for caseworkers and any law or regulation to take adverse action against an individual who acts unethically or unlawfully. Among the CPO’s recommendations were statewide ethical standards and processes that enhance accountability, oversight and transparency.

“We need to support our good caseworkers by creating standards of conduct for those caseworkers who do not perform their duties lawfully,” Villafuerte said. “Our office has seen examples of several caseworkers who have been engaged in unlawful behavior. This does not impact 99.9% of our caseworkers out there but for the small percentage that it does, it erodes the citizen’s trust of our caseworkers and our child welfare system.”

The CPO critiqued the Colorado Family Safety Assessment Tool that has been used in Colorado since 1999 to assess the immediate safety of children. Subjectively utilized and producing inconsistent results, the tool was flagged by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 as an area for improvement. A third-party audit of the tool and analysis of alternative models was recommended by the CPO.

Pointing to the high-profile closure of the El Pueblo Boys & Girls Ranch in 2017, the CPO again voiced concerns regarding a lack of consistent and transparent quality care standards for children and youth in residential treatment facilities. A quality assurance and accountability system was recommended by the CPO. This includes a public-facing database for parents, caregivers and county departments to access information about facility performance.

A complete overview of these issues and recommendations can be viewed in the complete brief provided to the Child Welfare Interim Study Committee: