Lost in the system
A lack of foster-care funds and workers is no comfort for some kids needing help.
Article Last Updated: 04/13/2008 01:32:30 AM MDT
A lot of people tried to do the right thing for Jeff. And yet, it all went very wrong.
When a neighbor saw what she thought were choke marks on his little sister's neck, she reported it.
Adams County human services responded quickly. Investigators talked to the children in person and away from their mother. They examined the kids and took pictures of marks and bruises. And when they were convinced their mother's boyfriend was hurting them, social workers whisked Jeff and his little brother and sister off to foster homes.
In the nearly six years since, one set of foster parents was accused of abusing Jeff, and another set rejected him. Two attorneys have represented him, a truckload of therapists have examined, diagnosed and treated him, and at least three caseworkers have been assigned to him. He has been up for adoption, then not. His brother and sister have been adopted by their grandparents; Jeff hasn't seen them in nearly two years.
When children the system is supposed to protect die of abuse or neglect, as happened to 13 Colorado kids last year, it gets attention — and this year a state investigation.
Not so when they survive.
As Jeff's case illustrates, even in a system where most workers do their best, the odds are against them — stacked by a system that is underfunded, widely dysfunctional and inconsistent, and at times seems to operate in a common-sense vacuum.
Two decades ago, Dr. Richard Krugman, now dean of the University of Colorado medical school, served on a congressional advisory board on child abuse. "That board called the child-protection system a national emergency," Krugman said. "And nothing has changed."
Despite the odds, the system does work, frequently.
"For every tragic story you hear, there's 100 other kids who get their needs met," said Mary McWilliams, an attorney for neglected children.
Still, from counties where abuse and neglect suspicions are investigated, to courts that adjudicate those cases, to the foster-care system that is supposed to provide safe havens, Colorado's child-protection system has one consistent theme: never enough.
There are never enough caseworkers, foster parents or adoptive parents. Never enough dollars to treat emotionally damaged kids or provide services to help parents in trouble keep their kids, and almost no money for programs that prevent neglect and abuse. And there is never enough training for anybody.
The problems encompass every aspect of the system:
• County staff members routinely handle 10 percent to 20 percent more cases than the 12 to 15 recommended in national standards. From 2005 to 2007 in Denver, the caseload increased 66 percent while staff levels increased 8 percent.
• Every abused or neglected child gets an attorney, called a guardian ad litem. In a review last year, state auditors chastised the Office of the Child's Representative for not being more selective in choosing attorneys. Executive director Theresa Spahn said her attorneys are "extremely dedicated," but still, "people are not beating down my door to come work for us at $60 an hour," the current pay rate.
• Judges who hear those cases are overwhelmed. In 2002, when Judge Chris Melonakis took over juvenile cases in Adams County, he averaged 330 cases a year — many involving multiple children and caseworkers.
"Then, with the explosion of meth labs, that (caseload) increased about 70 percent," he said.
• County workers try to place abused children with relatives. But in Colorado, only certified foster parents can be paid for the care they provide. So relatives who feed, clothe and shelter children get virtually nothing.
• Typically, a majority of child-protection cases involve neglect, not abuse, and neglect often stems from poverty. Yet the state computer system that handles food stamps and other subsidies can't talk to the child-protection computer system. Only El Paso County has found a way to integrate the two.
• In 2005, federal Medicaid changes made it harder to provide intensive therapy for abused children who have suffered emotional damage. Now, residential treatment centers say government payments don't cover expenses. The director of one treatment center says treatment decisions are often based not on what a child needs, but what a county can afford.
Deficiencies are no surprise
None of this should come as a surprise to either those who work in the system or those in elected office.
In 1998, the Colorado Lawyers Council reported that "neglected and abused children of Colorado were increasingly at risk because the system charged with protecting them had serious deficiencies."
The state avoided a lawsuit then by agreeing to hire hundreds of caseworkers and increase child-welfare funding.
By 2002, the state had satisfied the terms of the agreement. A year later, besieged by plummeting revenues, the legislature began drastic cuts to human-services budgets. Most counties have not yet recouped the dollars lost then.
In 1999, after a Denver Post series detailing the deaths of four children in foster care, then-Gov. Bill Owens assembled a task force to investigate.
When that group issued its recommendations, its chairman, then-Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, pledged that the report "won't gather dust on some shelf."
Eight years later, it is hard to find a copy of that report on any shelf, anywhere.
Among other things, the report recommended creation of a state child's ombudsman, an independent office to investigate concerns about the child-protection system.
More than two dozen other states have such an office; in Colorado, the proposal died in legislative committee. But this session, Rep. Debbie Stafford has revived the idea.
In Colorado, 64 counties operate 64 separate child-welfare systems with different practices, different services available for families and vastly different approaches to similar problems.
The state oversees counties but has no legal leverage over them — short of the extreme step of withholding their funding. State human services does not regularly audit counties, but four times in the past five years, complaints or other red flags have prompted state investigations.
In each of the four counties, reviewers found that officials had failed at the very essence of their mission: "to assure child safety."
In Moffat County, the state found child-protection workers didn't go to court to force parents into programs to make children safer.
In one case, a 3-year-old suffered burns severe enough to require skin grafts, but human-services workers closed the case after finding no conclusive evidence of abuse.
In Crowley County, state officials found that the Sheriff's Office was handling child-abuse complaints — and referring families to services — because the human-services department couldn't or wouldn't do it.
The review team concluded that the lone investigator/caseworker and his supervisor did "not function as a child- and family-serving agency."
And in Lake County, state officials went back a second time, in 2006, because the county had failed to fix problems uncovered two years earlier, including that the county "did not consistently assign a caseworker to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect."
The problems have been corrected in each county, said Sharen Ford of the state Human Services Department.
As they await the findings of the state's current probe, children's advocates and county officials cling to hope that this time real changes might result.
"Karen Beye is new, the governor is new, and I believe they have a sincere interest in seeing the system improve," said Don Cassata, director of Adams County's Human Services Department, referring to the executive director of the state Human Services Department.
For now, Beye won't talk publicly until the investigation is public — probably this week.
Leafing through photo pages
In a little brick house in a northern suburb, Jeff's grandmother, Jo Lynes, pulls out a photo album and leafs through the pages.
There's Jeff with his cousins, trick-or-treating. Jeff as a baby, with a Buddha-belly and a red pacifier. Jeff in Wyoming with his brother, sister and grandparents. In that photo, he sits on a wooden horse, cowboy hat and boots on, waving an arm high over his head, grinning.
"That face," Lynes said. "I'll never forget that face."
She has to rely on memory. Lynes is convinced she'll never see her grandson again.
Just weeks after the photo was taken, in 2002, a neighbor called social workers, concerned that the children were being abused.
Colorado parents abuse and neglect their children at a rate worse than parents in all but 10 other states, according to the Child Welfare League of America.
Last year Colorado residents made 70,216 calls to report abuse and neglect.
This fiscal year, the state will spend $409 million on child welfare — of which 26.7 percent is federal money, 25 percent is county funding and 47.5 percent is from the state's general fund.
In each of the past six years, nearly all Colorado counties have spent more on child protection than the state gave them. To make up the deficit, counties have raided other pots of social-services money.
So while calls to child-abuse hotlines have soared — from 42,559 in 2001 to 72,016 last year — most counties haven't been able to hire more staff.
After years of struggling, the director of human services in Colorado's most populous county has finally obtained additional state money.
"We worked with the state to get El Paso County's allocation up there comparable to the size county that we are," Barbara Drake said.
El Paso County expects to bolster its human services staff, which includes child welfare, by 17 this summer and seven more later. Likewise, Denver County, which has not regained all the staff it lost in 2003 cuts, hopes to add 40 full-time employees to its child-welfare staff of 263.
Getting the money was hard; filling the jobs won't be easy. In March, Denver advertised an opening for a therapist for abused or neglected kids. Candidates must have a master's degree, be a licensed social worker and be willing to work late nights, weekends and holidays.
Starting salary: $42,153.
At the same time, Denver also sought a solid-waste supervisor. Requirements: high school diploma, or the equivalent, and three years' experience in garbage collection.
Starting salary: $43,996.
Low pay, stress and high caseloads all partly explain why annual turnover among child-welfare caseworkers generally hovers between 30 percent and 40 percent nationwide.
From engaging to enraged
When Jeff was 4, a Head Start teacher described him as a happy, bright, engaging little boy.
By the time he was 7, more than one therapist saw in him a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, a child frightened and insecure, and angry.
They saw a child who had been severely abused, in his mother's home.
Taking him, and his brother and sister, away from that home was supposed to make it better.
Caseworkers try to find foster families near kids' own neighborhoods, so they don't have to leave schools and friends. But foster parents are in such short supply that county workers often can't be choosy about geography.
And so, on a July night in 2002, Jeff and his brother were taken to a home 50 miles away. His sister went to a different home.
Mary McWilliams, who has been a guardian ad litem for six years, said recently that if she could wave a magic wand and change anything in the system, she would not ask for more caseworkers or better pay.
"It would be more quality foster homes," she said. She has represented Jeff since 2003; she declined to talk about his case.
Three times during the nearly nine months the boys lived in a Castle Rock foster home, police and social workers were called because someone suspected they were being abused — again. Not once during those nine months is there any record that Jeff's caseworker visited him in that home.
His first attorney, Merna Thane, became so frustrated that she wrote an angry letter to a judge: "These children have not received the services they should have in a timely fashion, or follow-up on issues did not occur."
She went on to describe "an astounding lack of communication between the . . . caseworker and nearly all other workers and professionals on this case."
The suspicions of abuse were never substantiated. No charges were ever brought.
When she took over the case, McWilliams and others insisted the boys be moved. Three years later, that foster mother, Tember Rector, was convicted of seriously injuring a 2-year-old boy in her care. She is free pending appeal.
Whatever happened to Jeff, therapists' notes make it clear that his fears, his trauma and his anger did not dissipate during his stay there.
If anything, they increased.
He was too much for one set of foster parents to handle, and prone to "explosive and aggressive behavior."
One therapist noted that "the only thing that could have made (his) already poor attachment issues worse was the moving from family to family, as it reinforces his idea that he is not worthy of family life."
The keys to helping kids recover from trauma are providing them with security and relationships they can trust, said Skip Barber, director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies.
Both can be hard to come by in the child-protection system.
State has areas of excellence
Despite its problems, Colorado's system has pockets of excellence.
Melonakis has been nationally recognized for innovative practices that move cases efficiently and provide greater accountability.
In El Paso County, teaming welfare and child-protection workers has proved instrumental in helping resolve neglect issues and preventing them from escalating into physical abuse.
The Mental Health Center Serving Boulder and Broomfield Counties next month will receive a national award for a program to treat abused children.
In 2005, Jeff's photo went up on the Adoption Exchange website. The posting described him as "an exceptional boy who has many interests."
In addition, it said, he "has siblings with whom he needs to remain in contact."
He has not been adopted, and his picture is no longer on the website.
Jo and Ron Lynes acknowledge that their daughter "makes bad choices in men." But they assert that most of their grandson's battering happened in foster care. That position, they realize, hurt their efforts to get custody of Jeff.
In her worst moments, Jo Lynes worries that Jeff's future will bring him only more pain.
"He'll end up one of the statistics," she said, wiping her eyes. "He'll end up in juvenile hall."
He wouldn't be the first kid to bounce through foster care only to find trouble on the other side. In 2001, a National Institute of Justice study found that being abused or neglected as a child increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59 percent and increased the chances of being involved in crime as an adult by 28 percent.
Wherever he is, Lynes wants Jeff to know that his little brother and sister still ask for him, still miss him, still love him.
At school recently, his sister was assigned to write a story. She wrote of coming home one afternoon and finding a package on the porch, addressed to her. It is from her big brother. Inside are directions — like a scavenger hunt — for finding a surprise he has hidden for her.
She follows the directions and finds a magic unicorn. She writes her brother a letter, thanking him, and promising to use the unicorn for only good, "not for anything bad, like to rob a bank."
In the fantasy story, Jeff writes back: "I guess I knew you could use some magic."
So could he, Lynes said.
Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or email@example.com