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Suspected fraud by a Moffat County child protection caseworker led to one of the biggest reviews of case files in years as 15 caseworkers were sent to the rural northwestern Colorado county last summer. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s child protection system is in the midst of a shakeup as the state tries to drastically reduce the number of kids sent to institutions and group homes and instead place them with foster families or keep them home.

The changes are required by federal law and will cost Colorado $11.5 million this year alone for seven new employees and major data system upgrades. 

The 2018 law, called the Family First Prevention Services Act, is based on a simple premise: It’s healthier for children to live with relatives or in families than in what’s called “congregate care.” Also, preventing child abuse and neglect before it causes enough damage that a child ends up in an institution is good policy. 

But that doesn’t mean the bureaucratic twists involved in turning the $500 million Colorado child welfare division upside down are easy or cheap. 

Here are two problems at the start: Colorado doesn’t have enough foster homes to fit all of the children who need homes even now, and many of the state’s residential treatment centers and group homes are scrambling to figure out a new business model.

Colorado has a jumpstart on the law compared to other states because child welfare officials for years have pushed money toward prevention and decreased the number of children going to congregate care. More than 20 residential centers for foster youth have shut down in Colorado in the last decade, as the number of kids placed in those institutions dropped from 1,327 in 2006 to 907 in 2012 to 369 this year.

Still, the federal law — tacked onto a budget bill in February 2018 — caught states by surprise. It shifts funding to the front-end of child abuse and neglect, stating the federal government can reimburse states for providing mental health care, substance abuse treatment and in-home child abuse prevention programs. The law also incentivizes states to cut down on kids in group homes and residential centers.

Federal dollars will pay half the cost of child abuse prevention programs, with the other half left to the state and counties.

Minna Castillo Cohen has led the state Office of Children, Youth and Families since November 2017. She says the best-case scenario for children in foster care is to keep them in their communities, which is not always possible due to a statewide shortage of foster families. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s a real opportunity to invest in front-end prevention services,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. “And we have an opportunity to look at how we are placing our young people and where. The act really does emphasize keeping young people and their parents together, when it’s safe to do so.”

Independent reviewer to decide where kids live

A key piece of the federal law says caseworkers cannot put children or teens in a group home or residential center without an assessment by an independent, third-party reviewer. And this  assessment is supposed to happen before a child is removed — not after. 

Colorado soon will have a statewide, uniform assessment for all county child welfare departments. A third-party assessor who is independent from the county will review each case and recommend whether a child should go to a family or receive a higher level of care. 

Under current practice, a caseworker does the assessment. A judge determines whether to remove a child from their home.

The Colorado child welfare division plans to hire a contractor with statewide reach to conduct the assessments.

Also new under federal law — only centers that have been certified as “qualified residential treatment programs” will qualify for federal reimbursement to take care of foster youth. The certification means they offer a trauma-informed treatment model, including outreach to family members and siblings, while caring for foster children. It also requires six months of follow-up treatment after a foster child leaves the facility. 

“It’s very different from what those centers are doing now,” Castillo Cohen said, noting that some provide no aftercare and release youth directly to foster homes without continued support. “This is a giant change.” 

By January, when Colorado intends to implement the federal law, state officials are expecting only about 12 to 16 congregate care centers to have the certification. That’s out of dozens in Colorado. 

More than 100 people who own or work in congregate care facilities attended a state meeting on the new certification requirements last month, many concerned about how to evolve their programs. Group homes, which are larger than foster homes but smaller than residential centers, are having the toughest time figuring out how to survive.

They can aim for a residential treatment program certification that could take one or two years, or transform their business model into a specialized program. Group homes specifically trained to care for foster teens who have been victims of sex trafficking, or youth who are parents, are exempt from the federal certification requirements, for example. 

Some group homes could transition to large foster homes, as the state last year raised the maximum number of kids allowed per home from four to six.

“This is a big enough system change that it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Karen Yarberry, executive director of Jefferson Hills, a residential treatment center for foster youth in Aurora. “This will be evolving over years.”

Of the 4,772 children in the child welfare system this year, based on June numbers, there were 3,387 in foster homes, 369 in residential centers and 224 in group homes. 

Another federal change requires states to use only child abuse prevention programs approved by a federal clearinghouse, which is reviewing the programs. The process is slow. 

Colorado submitted 350 programs — from in-home parenting classes to mental health wrap-around services to truancy programs — for federal review. By this fall, just nine had been cleared. 

Costs this year total $11.5 million

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which writes the state budget, approved an $11.5 million request this month for the child welfare overhaul. Most of the money will go toward the division’s data system that keeps track of calls to the child abuse hotline, caseworker reports on family and child visits, plus court and medical records.

The massive, statewide computer system already was going through upgrades when the Family First federal law was passed, adding more requirements than the technology could handle. Even without the new law, Colorado would likely spend millions of dollars this year to modernize the data system.

The legislative committee approved the request unanimously, but not without some protest.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, March 28, 2019. He is on the Joint Budget Committee. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, said he was concerned about the repeated requests for technology upgrades, noting they come up every year and cost millions of dollars.

“I talk to caseworkers and county folks out in the field and they are just crying for this system, for this support. It’s vital,” he said. “Despite my cynicism about changes on IT projects and ‘those guys in the past didn’t do it right but we’re going to do it right now,’ you hear that over and over, I’m voting for this on behalf of the counties and the caseworkers.”

“It’s high-cost, it’s low-impact, it’s too late”

Tennyson Center for Children is among the residential programs embracing the overhaul. In the last decade, the center has refocused its model to emphasize community-based care. 

Tennyson has 24 kids living on its campus, but its therapists work with more than 300 children in their homes and schools in order to spare them from a round-the-clock treatment center. 

“Every single kid in our residential facility, if someone had acted earlier and interacted with that family before it was a crisis, there is a real likelihood they wouldn’t be here,” said Ned Breslin, president and CEO of Tennyson. “It’s high-cost, it’s low-impact, it’s too late.”

The Family First Act is good for kids and everyone in the child welfare industry “intuitively knows this is right,” Breslin said, but the state has a challenge in helping transition group homes and centers that have been caring for foster youth for decades. Residential centers still will need to exist, but Colorado can reduce the number of kids living in them, he said.

“Our goal is to keep kids off this campus,” he said. “This new law really gives us the green space to push there.”

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...