Child Protection Ombudsman office criticized in state audit

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An image from the state Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman's website.
Lack of documentation, untimely reviews and an organizational structure that sometimes results in the watchdog office investigating the very department that oversees its contract were some of the issues identified in the first-ever audit of the three-year-old Office of Colorado's Child Protection Ombudsman. The office began operating in 2011 with the purpose of serving as a neutral organization to hear grievances about Colorado's child welfare system -- and ultimately, to help better protect children.

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

Among the audit's key findings:

  • Case files were incomplete. The Colorado Office of the State Auditor looked at a sample of twenty case files that represented reviews and investigations done by the ombudsman office, which has the equivalent of three-and-a-half workers. All of the files were missing key information about which staff member took the initial call from the complainant and who was assigned to look into it. Five files had no explanation of how the reviewer reached his or her conclusion and none indicated that the reviewer's conclusion had been reviewed by a supervisor. One file showed that it took two months for the reviewer to begin working on the complaint.
  • Complainants weren't notified about the outcome of their complaints. The audit showed that in six of the twenty cases, there was no evidence that the complainant was told about the outcome of their complaint. In three cases, there was no evidence that the county where the complaint occurred was notified of the outcome, either. In five of the cases, the ombudsman office did not update the database where complaints are logged with the recommendations made to address the complaint.
  • The office suffers from a lack of policies, procedures and contract requirements. The state Department of Human Services pays a nonprofit organization, the National Association of Counsel for Children, to run the ombudsman program. (The budget for fiscal year 2015 is $504,000.) But the audit found that the state department "has not developed written guidance...either through policies, procedures, rules or contract requirements, that specifies when and how the Program should communicate its review or investigation findings and recommendations."

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Another photo from the website.
The audit also identified a concern with the structure of the office: While the ombudsman is authorized to investigate complaints against the state Department of Human Services, that very same department decides whether the ombudsman's contract will be renewed. That structure, the audit notes, "may make staff hesitant to conduct investigations and issue reports that reflect negatively upon the Department."

However, auditors "did not find evidence that the Department had infringed upon the Program's independence" -- a finding that the department highlighted in a press release.

Continue for comments from ombudsman Dennis Goodwin.


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