That should be the main take-away from an audit critical of child welfare services released last week.
The document was an unsparing assessment that shined a floodlight on matters often shielded from public view in the name of privacy.
The state auditor examined a number of child abuse and neglect cases and determined the Colorado Department of Human Services has been woefully inadequate in its supervision of county child welfare operations.
It is, in our opinion, a blueprint for change, which starts with the state exerting greater control over how counties go about determining whether a complaint merits further investigation and how it’s ultimately carried out. The state has enough authority, it seems, but appears reluctant to use it.
Admittedly, Colorado’s child welfare system is unusual. It is a state-supervised and county-administered system, one of only nine in the nation.
Power usually follows money, and it’s worth noting that counties pay just 20 percent of the costs to administer child welfare programs, with the rest coming from state and federal funds.
There seems to be some confusion as to the limits of the state’s power even in the department.
“At various times during the audit, different levels of Department management provided us with varying interpretations of whether counties must adhere to Department guidance,” the audit said.
This isn’t some obscure, internecine governmental fight. Being able to ensure that counties follow rules, laws and guidelines in deciding whether to investigate a child abuse report and how to handle it are fundamental matters.
To its credit, the state acknowledged it can improve its performance in some regards, but those concessions often were obscured by combative responses.
On a separate matter, the audit acknowledged that some of the problems it found could be related to understaffing.
Previously, a study conducted by a state-paid consultant found that an additional 574 caseworkers and 122 supervisors were needed to do the work according to rules.
Now, we still believe that number could be reduced via efficiencies, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the staffing piece of the problem.
The child welfare system, which has long been troubled, can be improved so long as the political will exists to do so.