By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Following the deaths of 35 children over the past three years who “slipped through the cracks” of the state’s child protection system, lawmakers Thursday unveiled a bill that would create an independent investigator to address weaknesses in the system.
At a news conference Thursday, Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, unveiled her Senate Bill 171, the Child Protection Ombudsman Bill. The measure would create an independent “advocate” to help protect children and provide accountability of the child welfare system.
“How many children have to die before we take action?” asked Newell. “Today, we need to make a stand for those who are too young to stand up for themselves.”
It remains unclear exactly how the program would be run — either directly through the Department of Human Services, or through a nonprofit. Karen Beye, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said those details will be worked out by lawmakers as they debate the bill.
But supporters of the legislation, including Gov. Bill Ritter, say the move is necessary to fix the broken system.
“This legislation will provide transparency, consistency, accountability and ongoing input for Colorado’s child welfare system and help us improve critical services for Colorado’s most vulnerable children,” said Ritter.
The proposal stems from one of 29 recommendations made by the Child Welfare Action Committee, which was formed in April 2008 by an executive order from the governor. The committee met for 18 months before making its recommendations.
Several recommendations are already being implemented, including the Child Welfare Training Academy, a differential response program that allows stakeholders to skip the court process, and beefed-up response to mandatory reporters, to name a few.
Several high-profile cases raised caution flags over the past three years.
One case was 3-year-old Neveah Gallegos, who was suffocated, placed in a garbage bag and then buried in her pink princess tennis shoes underneath a tree stump and debris in a Denver ravine. Critics said it was unacceptable that the case slipped past the welfare system’s radar, especially considering the mother’s boyfriend was a registered sex offender, and that little Neveah had been treated at an emergency room for vaginal bleeding.
Seven-year-old Chandler Grafner was another child to slip through the cracks. He weighed only 34 pounds when he was found dead. Grafner’s biological parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against child-welfare agencies in Denver and Jefferson counties. The suit claimed that the Department of Human Services in Jefferson County failed to adequately investigate whether Grafner’s foster parents were fit to supply a foster home. The suit went on to claim that child-welfare agencies in both counties then failed to keep Grafner safe while living in the foster home. There were even reports at the time that surfaced from Grafner’s school indicating abuse.
Ombudsman’s duties: Stop such tragedies from occurring
Ritter said the purpose of the ombudsman would be to really stop such tragedies from occurring.
“Before kids get in the system and when they’re under the watchful eye of social services, but parents believe or foster parents believe that the system isn’t necessarily responding to those kids’ issues the way they should be, before a (guardian ad litem) is involved, before a juvenile court is involved and there’s dependence and neglect — are we doing as much as we can for the sake of these kids?” asked the governor.
The ombudsman’s office would be charged with reviewing complaints, making recommendations and filing an annual report concerning improvements to the system. An aspect of community outreach and education would also be tied to the job.
While the ombudsman would be independent of state departments, the program would be an independent component of the Department of Human Services.
Supporters point out that 29 other states have created a similar program.
Newell says rather than play the blame game, it’s time for lawmakers and state departments to take action.
“For years there has been finger pointing from and to all parties — the state, the counties, the advocates, the providers — it is finally time to put down our fingers and join hands and band together for the solution to help children, to stop the blame game and come together to be part of the solution in protecting kids,” she said.
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters
In other coverage:
The Denver Post: Gov. Bill Ritter and legislators will try to create an ombudsman office that would provide impartial oversight of the child-protection system and seek resolution of complaints concerning child-protection services. “In 2007 and 2008, we experienced what many people believe, and I believe, was an unacceptably high number of deaths among Colorado children who were at some level under . . . the watchful eye of social or human services,” Ritter said, referring to 13 abuse-related deaths of children who were in protective services, including Chandler Grafner, 7, who starved to death.
KDVR: Gov. Bill Ritter and Democratic lawmakers laid out a plan to address systematic weaknesses in Colorado’s child protection system that have resulted in the deaths of a few dozen children in protective care, from Chandler Grafner, who starved, to Neveah Gallegos, who was murdered.
Associated Press: Gov. Bill Ritter and state lawmakers want to create an independent office to investigate complaints about how child abuse cases are being handled following the deaths of 35 children in the last three years. Under legislation introduced Thursday, the child protection ombudsman office would be set up as an independent office in the state human services department.
TheDenverChannel.com: Legislation was introduced Thursday that would institute an independent ombudsman to look into child abuse cases if a person reporting the abuse believes the county human services workers are not doing enough. “We cannot wait for one more child to be bruised, starved or even die while in our protective custody,” said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who sponsored the bill. “Over the past three years, there have been 32 deaths of children while in our protective custody.”