The 239-page report was released and presented to the Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday, more than 17 months after the committee voted 6-0 in favor of launching the performance audit. During the tense, five-hour hearing, the state auditor’s office listed dozens of deficiencies it found in various areas of the child welfare system — stretching from when the department first receives an allegation of abuse to how the department reviews the deaths of children who died after entering the system. Among the findings:
• When reviewing reports of child abuse, caseworkers screened out some calls based on criteria that did not exist in state rules or failed to investigate in cases where circumstances required it — such as a 4-year-old with visible bruises, according to the audit.
• Incorrect information was included in 21 of 40 risk assessments the auditor’s office reviewed, including an instance in which a caseworker closed a case without interviewing everyone who had information about the family. In the months that followed, child protection workers received a new allegation that a child was sexually assaulted by someone living in the home, the audit found.
• According to the audit, the Department of Human Services struggles to ensure county departments follow state rules in handling cases, and in 2013 instructed 15 counties on how to circumvent a state rule limiting the amount of emergency funds for families at $400. Before the conclusion of the audit, the department sought more guidance from the Colorado attorney general’s office on its ability to enforce state rules at the county level.
But the common thread stringing the findings together was a lack of state oversight on the 64 county departments. The shortage of guidance provided to county departments creates inefficient standards in the way child protection workers assess and handle cases of child abuse and neglect, the audit found.
Executive Director Reggie Bicha, who arrived at the hearing armed with stacks of handouts and poster-sized charts, sharply rebuffed several findings and analysis in the audit. Forcing “one size fits all” rules on county departments can hinder caseworkers’ ability to meet the individual needs of families throughout the state, he said.
“Child welfare has similarities similar to the practice of law and practice of medicine,” Bicha said. “The profession also has multiple ways to determine a child’s safety.”
In response to three of the cases cited in the audit, Bicha provided the committee with mitigating details not provided in the report.
The audit included 47 recommendations, including changes to training materials, reporting requirements and steps to ensure county departments follow state rules.
The Department of Human Services disagreed with one-third of the recommendations.
Many of the recommendations are in line with new programs, updated rules and new training sessions that already have been put into place or are in the process of being implemented, including a statewide child abuse hotline set to launch in January, Bicha said.
Most of the cases the auditor’s office reviewed were from late 2012 or early 2013, and the concerns they identified also were identified by the department, Bicha said. Several recommendations, Bicha said, were redundant of practices already in place.
“We don’t need another line in a chart,” Bicha said. “We need another line in the budget.”
Bicha was cautious not to criticize the auditor’s office but said he was surprised they did not work with child welfare experts who could have helped review the documents and write recommendations.
“We run two state hospitals at the department,” Bicha said. “They would never assign an auditor to go and read a medical record and argue they gave a wrong diagnosis.”
The audit was requested by 24 lawmakers in early 2013 after a Denver Post investigation. It found that more than 70 of the 175 children in Colorado who died of abuse and neglect from 2007 to 2011 had families or caregivers who were known to child protection workers.
The audit also reviewed Colorado’s “differential response” program, which allows caseworkers to help at-risk families before there is proof or a legal finding of abuse or neglect. Through the program, which launched in 2010, families can receive support without child welfare services opening a formal investigation.
Ten differential response assessments were reviewed by the auditor’s office. In three of those cases, a traditional investigation may have been more appropriate, according to the audit. One of the three cases involved the parents of two children who had previously failed to cooperate with caseworkers and there were allegations of methamphetamine use in the home.
Since 1990, the state auditor’s office has released four audits of child welfare services. None had a scope this broad.