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Opinion: Let’s help struggling families before bad situations spiral into abuse and neglect

What a particularly crummy few weeks for kids.  

The Trump Administration just announced that children at our borders can be detained indefinitely in the same week that we learn the extent of abuse detained children placed in foster care face across the country.  

Colorado children have fared no better. The state’s Child Protection Ombudsman released her long anticipated report on the systematic abuse of children at the now defunct El Pueblo Boys and Girls Home. 

Edward “Ned” Breslin

Jennifer Brown, a reporter at The Colorado Sun, rightly asks why it took so long to intervene when evidence of abuse, neglect and re-traumatization was so profound. 

On top of this, a report emerged last week about restraint tactics used in Colorado youth correction facilities that have been likened to “torture” by other states.  

Lots of suffering children, combined with insufficient institutional responses, tear at our already delicate social fabric in ways that ripple far and wide. 

The thing that all of these stories and reports miss is one key element to the puzzle that, thankfully, Colorado is starting to address more aggressively.

Despite our best intentions, Colorado, like many states, simply waits too long to engage with families whose trajectory may be troubling but who could, with a bit of support, avoid the challenges and places described in these reports.  

The bottom line is that we need to find new ways to support families who are struggling before situations escalate and require involvement by the state and county agencies responsible for issues like abuse, neglect and juvenile justice. 

We end up in the situations described in the flood of recent reports partially (not wholly) because we miss opportunities to help earlier.  

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Open any case history of a child who is in Colorado’s child welfare system and buckle up.

The depth of trauma each child has experienced is significant. The abuse is profound and their case files are not easy to read.  I meet many of these children and see the pain on their faces, in their eyes, in their mannerisms and in their behaviors — which range literally across the spectrum from angry and violent to meek and silent. 

These behaviors are understandable given that these children have been violated in extreme ways, as described in their case histories.   

Children “deep” in the system are on precarious and unfinished journeys between hospitals, foster homes, residential placements and juvenile detention centers with seemingly no end in sight. It is infuriating to read about a 10-year-old girl who has been in 15 different places over the course of five years.  

I am not sure why we expect her to not be angry, or silent or mistrusting of adults.  

 The roar of “enough” is growing nationwide, and Colorado is surging ahead with ideas that have been gaining traction across the state, despite the headlines, in ways that compel.

The Tennyson Center for Children is honored to be part of an interesting coalition emerging in counties like Denver, Douglas, Boulder and Eagle that uses its collective strengths to support families earlier so that child welfare involvement can be radically diminished. 

It is hardly the only work of this nature in the state, but it breaks down historical silos, giving families a better chance to heal before becoming involved in child welfare.  

Agencies like Tennyson and Savio are partnering with county departments of human services in radically new ways by testing in-home programs that support families before they disintegrate and become involved in child welfare. 

We are forging new alliances being with non-traditional child welfare agencies like Manna Connect, a powerful community of Douglas County churches who support families in need well before they reach crisis and are deeply trusted.

Local Boys & Girls clubs, who are alert to the signals of maltreatment from the kids who run through their buildings and fields, and dynamic agencies like Safe Families for Children and Illuminate Colorado understand more than most that if we want to really rewrite the narrative on these troubling stories that filled our newsfeeds all week we must engage in the issue and support families with children ages zero to five instead of waiting for maltreatment to occur.

These alarming stories should do exactly that: compel engagement and outreach.

And Colorado’s honesty about what is happening to children across our state is refreshing.  That said, we need to act and change this story line, and thankfully, all across Colorado, this is beginning to happen.  

Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.

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