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The Colorado House chambers, photographed on Jan. 4, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The bipartisan committee that writes Colorado’s budget wants an audit of every county child welfare department in the state, a rare request that came as lawmakers blasted the system for poor outcomes.

What riled legislators was a $6.1 million budget request to add 100 more caseworkers across Colorado, the fifth phase of a multi-year plan to boost caseworkers and supervisors to recommended levels. A 2014 workload study found Colorado was dangerously short on caseworkers, and the plan was to hire more every year until there is one child protection worker for every 10 cases of abuse and neglect they investigate.

So far, the state has funded 367 caseworker jobs of the 698 recommended through the workload study, spending $22 million since 2015.

But, as staffing has increased, some outcomes for children have not improved, the Joint Budget Committee learned in a contentious hearing last week. In fact, a few federal measurements — including whether caseworkers are seeing children at least once per month and whether children are getting medical exams within two weeks of foster home placement — have gotten worse.

“What is going on out in the counties that these numbers would look so awful?” asked Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, before the panel voted to ask for a financial review by the state auditor’s office.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, of Carbondale, on Dec. 18, 2018. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Rankin said he has always questioned whether the workload study would make children safer. “It’s like going into a machine shop and figuring out how many times a person moves their arm and reducing that to the number of people that you need,” he said during the budget committee meeting. “It never was based on outcomes.”

Rankin was among the lawmakers who approved adding more caseworkers after the study, and recalled the emotional testimony from workers who were overwhelmed, traumatized and burned out by their jobs.

“I remember one young lady saying, ‘We just need somewhere to go cry,’” Rankin recalled. “This is a hard job.”

Still, he and other budget committee members now say they want to explore a “shift” in child welfare funding for county departments, which make their own decisions regarding budget, salary and staffing. There is no set salary for a caseworker in Colorado. While some of the state funding is targeted only for staffing, counties can use certain funds where local officials deem they’re needed.

“It could look different in Douglas County than it does in Saguache County,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

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State child welfare officials want to see the staffing promises fulfilled and pointed toward some improved outcomes in keeping children safe. “We don’t want to change focus on what we were trying to achieve through the caseload study,” Castillo Cohen said.

Colorado caseworkers are having initial face-to-face visits with children in the time allowed by law 97 percent of the time, up from 94 percent a few years ago, she noted.

However, the state’s scores on making sure foster kids are getting a stable education, and not moving from school to school as they change homes, have dropped from 66 percent of the time to 56 percent in three years. And the likelihood that a kid in the child welfare system receives mental health care sufficient for their needs has dropped to 65 percent from 72 percent.

But Castillo Cohen said the solution isn’t to stop funding more caseworker positions. Instead, counties might need to add or shift resources to focus on education stability and medical and mental health care for foster children.

An audit, she said, “could bring to light where the deficiencies are.”

The budget committee voted 6-0 to ask the legislative audit committee for a financial report on all 64 county child welfare departments, specifically to look at block grant funds from the state intended to improve staffing, salaries and turnover rates.

Joint Budget Committee staffer Robin Smart suggested the audit during her presentation to lawmakers and provided charts showing child welfare outcomes. “My issue with this frankly, No. 1, is that they went down to begin with, when more money was added to the system, and a lot of money has been added to the system,” she said. “But, No. 2, we don’t have a good way in the state of Colorado to figure out right now what exactly is being spent on what, and what outcomes we are getting.

“We really have to get a handle on what’s being spent.”

Rep. Kim Ransom, a Douglas County Republican, said she wanted the audit to determine whether the funds are “being used in a responsible way.”

The vote came during a committee meeting in which several lawmakers said they were frustrated by what they considered the state Department of Human Services’ lack of preparation and foresight regarding various budget requests, from funding for administrative costs to the statewide child abuse hotline.

Rankin, at one point, announced he would vote no on three requests “as a way of sending a signal to the department that we want more from them.”

After the current budget request for 100 more caseworkers, Colorado still would need 231 more caseworkers and supervisors to reach the ratio of 10 cases per caseworker set by the workload study. That would cost an additional $14.5 million.

An audit of all county child welfare departments likely would not be complete for one to two years, far beyond the current legislative session.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo