Child welfare: Hickenlooper's new plan calls for "common practice approach" in all 64 counties

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State officials have a new plan for improving Colorado's child-welfare system, one that will beef up training for caseworkers, make data about child deaths more readily available, and employ a "common practice approach" in all 64 counties -- an idea that hasn't gotten far in the past, as explained in our cover story, "Death Knell."

In 2009 a committee appointed by then-Governor Bill Ritter to recommend ways to fix Colorado's child-welfare program suggested an overhaul of the state's entire system to give more power to the state and less autonomy to the counties. But the counties balked and the recommendation went nowhere.

The new plan, announced last week by Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Department of Human Services head Reggie Bicha, calls for implementing "one practice approach and philosophy for the entire state to ensure the collaboration of best practices in caring for kids." As for what that approach will look like, Bicha notes that it involves expanding the "differential response" model, which allows caseworkers more flexibility in the way they respond to reports of child abuse. As for other details, Bicha says, "This is not a finalized process, and certain details will continue to be shaped as the plan evolves."

In unveiling the plan, officials pointed out some sobering statistics: 43 children involved with the child-welfare system have died in the past five years.

Those deaths include well-known cases, such as that of Chandler Grafner, and lesser-known ones, including that of Ashaquae Foster, whose mother and stepfather found her bleeding on a urine-soaked mattress in the bedroom she shared with her developmentally delayed aunt. They waited six hours before seeking medical attention because they worried they'd get in trouble for locking Ashaquae in her room, where she'd gone to sleep the night before with a bloody nose. The coroner found that she'd choked to death.

Colorado took a much-lauded step toward better protecting children last year, when it opened the Office of Colorado's Child Protection Ombudsman, designed to serve as a neutral organization to hear grievances about the child-welfare system, make recommendations for improvements and help families navigate the system's ins and outs.

But Hickenlooper and Bicha want to do more. Read a summary of their plan below.

Keeping Kids Safe and Families Healthy

More from our News archive: "Police brutality: Denver provides eight years of complaints in James Moore case."

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This plan represents the first indication in decades that, when it comes to child welfare, the state finally might be ready to address the elephant in the room: the fact that Colorado tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation, taking away children at a rate more than 70 percent above the national average and double and triple the rate in systems widely regarded as national models for keeping children safe, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.

 Colorado compounds the problem by warehousing children in the worst form of placement, group homes and institutions at the highest rate in America, more than double the national average. Not only does this do terrible harm to the children needlessly taken away and institutionalized, it also overwhelms caseworkers.  All that time wasted on needless removal steals time from finding children in real danger – that’s almost always the real reason for deaths of children “known to the system” in cases like the ones in this story. Richard WexlerExecutive DirectorNational Coalition for Child Protection

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