In March, I wrote about the toxic war between Tennessee's largest newspaper, The Tennessean, and the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. At issue was the department's failure to cooperate in quickly releasing information to the paper related to a string of child fatalities in the state. It was a classic and discouraging case of how antagonism between public officials and the press can spiral downward, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and hyper-defensiveness that actually thwarts improving services and systems.
Well, it seems the opposite is now happening in Colorado, where a series by The Denver Post appears to be moving public officials in the right direction. The series came about after it was learned that 70 of 175 child abuse and neglect fatalities over a six-year period involved kids who had some contact with the system.
It's particularly interesting that the approach on the part of the Post hasn't been to try and demonize or blame individuals, in spite of the pretty horrific specifics of certain cases highlighted by the paper. Rather, the Post has taken a more thoughtful approach to raising questions about the system, from how children and family services are administered (Colorado is one of nine states where services are provided by counties with state oversight), to how the state handles hotline calls, to the fact that there's never been any analysis of worker caseloads among the state's 64 counties. "Colorado has found at least 139 ways to improve the state's troubled child welfare system in the last six years," the paper reported, "from better training for caseworkers to more oversight of the 64 counties that each interpret state policy their own way."
What's more, the response on the part of officials like Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), hasn't been to stonewall the paper, but to actually use the attention to push for progress. After the Post started its series -- and in the wake of a pretty tough CDHS ombudsman's report on one of the highlighted fatalities -- Bicha said, "At the end of the day, each side learned from each other, and we have better facts that will help us find better outcomes for kids."
Clearly, though, Colorado's children and family services system has some serious problems that have yet to be figured out. The number of children dying from abuse and neglect each year is rising statewide, according to the Post, having reached a rate of one every 12 days.
The series and the ombudsman's report naturally got the attention of both Gov. John Hickenlooper and the state legislature. Earlier this month, the legislature requested that the state auditor do two audits. The first, which the state auditor says will be done in time for the 2014 legislative session, will review workloads for child protection staff in every county and also take a look at how the state's "differential response" approach to hotline calls is working. The second, which will be done in 2014, will be more of a traditional audit, looking at basic issues of efficiency and effectiveness.
The legislative request for the auditor's intervention is also worth noting too. It's not at all unusual for legislatures to be as knee jerk and adversarial as the press, looking for someone's head to cut off in the wake of a few child fatality horror stories. But this time, the response was reasoned. That could be because one of those leading the call for the audits is Longmont Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, himself a former caseworker. Singer says he wants to understand whether caseworkers in Colorado are carrying the recommended average of around a dozen cases, or whether they're getting crushed by caseloads.
I suspect the auditor's findings will reveal that in the 64 counties, caseloads will be all over the map. Dig a little deeper and fidelity to various policy and procedures outlined by the feds and the states will likely come up as uneven. Meanwhile, IT systems will no doubt surface as a culprit, again varying in quality and utility from county to county. (The second audit might also turn up the fact that front-line caseworkers in Colorado aren't exactly overpaid.)
For his part, Hickenlooper has signaled that he's not using the current crisis as an opportunity to try to gain full statewide control of the system -- a dubious fix anyway, since there are plenty of underperforming state-run children and family services systems, including Tennessee's. Rather, Hickenlooper wants to use this crisis as an opportunity to figure out how to improve the system that's in place. That's the right choice. Wholesale restructuring would be a huge and difficult political lift, not to mention tremendously disruptive, putting Colorado's children and families at even greater risk, at least, for the short- and mid-term.
Clearly there's continuing tension between the CDHS, the ombudsman's office and the press in Colorado -- and there should be. In this case though, all the players seem to have been able to move beyond emotion and to focus on using tragedy to respond evenly and thoughtfully in looking for ways to improve outcomes for kids and families.