The Colorado Senate at work in Denver. (AP File Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER | A committee of state lawmakers is digging into Colorado’s child welfare system this summer in an attempt to fix long-standing problems with racial inequity, a shortage of caseworkers and kids who are the subject of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline but never get help. 

The review has the potential to create the broadest overhaul of the system in the last 10 years. 

The 11-member group, which includes state senators and representatives, is allowed to submit five bills to the legislature when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January. They will decide on that legislation after a series of meetings over the summer and fall in which they are taking testimony from county caseworkers, state child welfare officials and people who have been involved in the system. 

Lawmakers said they asked for the interim committee because they are tired of addressing problems in the foster care system with separate, narrow pieces of legislation. While Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said the committee “is not looking at poking fingers at anybody,” the committee’s first meeting Tuesday included sharp statements from legislators during a 90-minute back-and-forth with leaders of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. 

“Anything we don’t acknowledge, we are not working on,” said Rep. Junie Joseph, a Boulder Democrat who questioned why child welfare officials did not bring data about racial inequities in foster care to the hearing. 

Among the problems brought to the committee: 

Racial, disability inequities

Black children are involved in Colorado’s child welfare system at rates far higher than all other kids, and the racial bias exists at every level of the system — from the number of calls to the hotline to the number who “age out” of foster care. 

Black teens were more than three times as likely as kids of other races to age out of foster care in 2020, according to data previously provided to The Colorado Sun from the state human services department. Black children are the focus of calls to the child abuse hotline 1.27 times more than their percentage of the population in Colorado. White kids, meanwhile, are underrepresented in hotline calls compared with their portion of the state population, at a rate of 0.64. 

Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, asked state child welfare officials to produce more data delving into racial inequity in the system, including information about ZIP codes with higher levels of child welfare involvement. 

The Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which represents parents whose children are in the child welfare system, asked the committee to consider the inequities faced by parents with disabilities. 

About half of indigent parents accused of child abuse or neglect in Colorado have a disability, which is more than double the percentage of people with disabilities in the state, the office said in a brief. And while 70% of parents without a disability end up reunited with their children, less than 50% of parents with a disability are reunified, the office said. 

Caseworker shortage

Many Colorado counties are failing to meet requirements that caseworkers meet face-to-face each month with families involved in an open child abuse or neglect case. This includes parents whose children have been placed with foster families. 

In the past five years, the statewide compliance with this rule hasn’t risen above 47%, with some counties reporting just 10% compliance. 

In one case reported to the committee by the Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman, a caseworker saw a parent 13 times in 22 months, rather than monthly as required. Relatives of the mother were concerned that she was using drugs, had mental health issues and that her children, who were living with her, were being physically abused by her boyfriend. 

The ombudsman’s office wrote in a memo to the committee that it “is acutely aware” that the system is short on caseworkers and that county departments are also concerned they are not meeting the requirements. “They have routinely cited a consistent lack of support and resources as one reason this issue persists,” the memo said. 

Caseworkers from various counties told lawmakers that they are overworked, underpaid and constantly criticized. 

Andrea Woods, a caseworker supervisor for Arapahoe County Department of Human Services, said caseworkers are required to go into dirty homes with bugs on the floor, meet with people who are using illegal drugs, investigate people who have committed violent crimes including domestic violence and homicide, and question people about children who were killed. 

All the while, they are criticized publicly — whether they allow kids to stay with parents or make the “gut-wrenching” decision to put them in foster care, she said.

“It is our fault that a child dies at the hands of a caretaker,” Woods said. “It is our fault when the public thinks we have overreacted.” 

Lawmakers said they were moved by a panel of caseworkers who shared their stories of door-to-door casework, often working up to 60 hours per week.

“I don’t know what we would do without you,” Michaelson Jenet said. “I’m sorry people call you names and worse.”

Broken computer system

The statewide information system that holds confidential information about child abuse and neglect cases has long been a source of frustration for counties. 

The system, called Trails, fails on a regular basis, most recently shutting down six weeks ago for about eight hours. “It really creates an unsafe situation with the families we are engaging with,” said Jamie Ulrich, director of Weld County Department of Human Services, noting that caseworkers need all the information available as they knock on doors.

Also, while the system is going through upgrades, caseworkers have had to enter data into two systems, which causes gaps in information and a higher likelihood of errors, county officials testified.

Reporting bad caseworkers

Colorado has no process or law to revoke the certification of caseworkers who have violated the law or put children in danger. The state also has no requirement that counties inform other county child welfare departments about “gross misconduct” or ethical breaches, according to the child protection ombudsman. The ombudsman first raised concerns about this seven years ago. 

“As such, their certification to work with children remains in place and they are able to move from county to county undetected,” according to an ombudsman brief provided to the committee.

Since 2015, four caseworkers have been criminally charged with falsifying records, most for lying about checking on kids. In at least one case, the worker was hired by another county before the criminal action was filed, the ombudsman’s office said. 

Fewer children are removed from homes

The statewide child abuse hotline received more than 113,000 reports last year, a 51% increase from a decade earlier. Of those, about 34,000 were “screened in” for further review by a caseworker and 3,654 became child welfare cases, according to data presented to the committee. 

In the past year, about 4,500 children were in foster placements in Colorado, which is a 41% decrease in the past decade. 

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