Legislation that would remove the state’s child watchdog office from the control of the state Department of Human Services passed a Senate committee 5-0 Thursday, despite protest from state and county child welfare officials who argued the system is working fine.
“It’s hard for me to sit in a hearing and hear about how our system is working well when we continue to hear about children dying,” retorted Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver.
Several children’s advocates said the structure is working well for child welfare departments; the point, though, is that it isn’t working for kids. “The question is, ‘How does it function for all of Colorado?’ ” said Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center.
The ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints from the public about the way the child welfare system handles cases of abuse and neglect. The office received 450 complaints this year, reviewed about 200 of them and opened six investigations into county child welfare departments.
Ombudsman Dennis Goodwin recently investigated Denver child protection officials’ handling of a case in which a caseworker allegedly lied about checking on a baby who later ended up dead. Results of the investigation have not been made public because a crimina investigation is ongoing.
Under current law, the state Department of Human Services oversees the ombudsman’s contract, legal counsel and budget. “That is direct control of what happens to that office,” said Linda Weinerman, executive director of the Colorado Office of the Child’s Representative.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, would give the ombudsman’s office autonomy. A 20-member advisory board could hire or fire the ombudsman, and the office would make its own budget requests at the Capitol, independent of the child welfare system.
Senators on the Health and Human Services Committee said they worry Gov. John Hickenlooper could veto the legislation. Governor’s spokeswoman Kathy Green said the governor has not threatened a veto but his office does “feel strongly” that the ombudsman should remain in the executive branch.
The office was created about four years ago after a recommendation from former Gov. Bill Ritter’s child welfare task force.
“This isn’t broken, and it took us a long time and hard work to get a good ombudsman relationship that’s working,” Julie Krow, a state human services deputy executive director, testified Thursday. “There is no evidence that it’s not working.”
But others said foster families, foster children, doctors, teachers and others are reluctant to complain about the child welfare system when the watchdog is part of that system.
Tori Black, a 25-year-old former foster child, said most foster kids don’t know the ombudsman exists. Complaints about how foster children have been treated stop at their caseworkers, she said.
Besides, Black said, a foster child who already has complained to a caseworker and perhaps a supervisor would not then complain to an ombudsman who operates under the child welfare system.
The child welfare system received 164,203 referrals about child abuse and neglect last year.
More than 99,500 of those were “screened out,” meaning child protection authorities did not investigate them.
The legislation now goes to the Senate’s appropriations committee before it heads to the full Senat