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Erica Sullivan, an early childhood clinician with the Tennyson Center for Children, talks through parenting exercises during a session with Jessica, a young mother who has been learning ways to work with her 3-year-old son, Michael. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In the Douglas County suburbs, one type of call to the child abuse hotline is more likely to end up with a kid in foster care than any other: “Beyond Control of Parents.” 

The term means a child or teenager is having such severe mental health and behavioral issues that they’ve become a problem at school and at home. Teachers have kicked them out of class. Parents have exhausted all their options. 

And when county child welfare officials reviewed their data, they realized that nearly half of “Beyond Control of Parents” calls resulted in investigations. One-third of youth ended up in foster homes, group homes or residential treatment centers. That’s much more often than in cases where parents are accused of abuse or neglect.

This led Douglas County to ask the question now intriguing the child protection community in Colorado: What if the system could help those kids sooner, before they were in crisis? And if the government put more money on the front end, instead of having it kick in when children get involved with child protection, could it spare kids from having caseworkers show up at their door to remove them from their homes?

Jessica, a young mother who fled a violent marriage with her son, receives parenting skills sessions through the Tennyson Center for Children that she says have transformed her relationship with her son. Michael, 3, loves playing a piano and “acting like a DJ” in their apartment. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The county human services department, along with several others in urban and rural Colorado, is part of a massive, multimillion-dollar experiment that could overhaul the child welfare system. This is not a tweak in policy or the addition of a new program — it’s an attempt to rewrite how child welfare works. 

And although it has the support of the state child welfare division, that’s not where the idea originated. A group of nonprofits and private-sector organizations that provide services for foster kids, led by the Tennyson Center for Children in Denver, has raised millions of dollars to help children before a caseworker comes to their house or anyone calls the child abuse and neglect hotline about them. 

Those involved in the effort hope to capture enough data to convince the policymakers who write the state budget and dole out Medicaid money that public dollars would have a bigger impact if they were spent on prevention. 

The leader of the project is Tennyson Center CEO Ned Breslin, a survivor of child abuse, the former CEO of the global nonprofit Water for People, a TED talker and a relentless, big-idea guy. 

“We think we will show it’s cheaper to intervene earlier, that it’s less traumatic, that a family does not have to continue to get worse before they get help,” he said. “We believe it will be so powerful that philanthropic dollars eventually will not be needed for this.”

Here is how the project — called “Rewiring” — will work: 

The ZOMA Foundation, the Piton Foundation and the RJ Clark Foundation are the main donors (they are not ready to reveal how much they’ve donated, but it’s several million dollars). Organizations including Tennyson, the Savio House, Lutheran Family Services and others are providing the therapists, parenting coaches and mental health staff to help children and parents before they are involved with the child welfare system.

How do they find the families that need help? This part is tricky, and varies by county, but local child welfare departments that have signed on to the project will work with schools, hospitals, nonprofits and others to sign people up for services.

The goal is to find the families who are a bit “wobbly,” Breslin said. 

These are the babies born in the hospital who are not addicted to drugs — which would mean child welfare officials would intervene — but those born to families without secure food and housing, or with a lack of attachment or parenting skills. They are teenagers with mental health issues not yet severe enough that they’re out of a parent’s control or in need of a mental health hold.

They are kids whose school counselors have reported to the child abuse and neglect hotline in the hopes of getting them services, but their cases are screened out because they don’t qualify.

“Give us those families, the ones that you are heartbroken you are turning away,” Breslin said. “Our hope is you never see them again. Child welfare is always going to be needed, but it shouldn’t be at this level.”

Huge budget, poor outcomes

The child welfare system has a $558 million budget in Colorado, with about 8,820 out-of-home foster placements last year. 

The system’s outcomes, nationally and here, are abysmal — children who spend time in foster care are less likely to graduate from high school than kids who are homeless. They’re more likely to become homeless as adults, go to prison, become addicted to drugs and have their own kids who end up in foster care.

Most of the funding — a mixture of mostly state money, but also federal and county dollars —  goes to kids in foster homes and residential treatment centers, and to investigate cases of abuse and neglect to determine whether to remove kids from their parents. Wards of the state are covered by Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income residents that pays for medical and mental health treatment. 

Jessica, right, plays with blocks and imitates the behavior of her son, Michael, while Erica Sullivan from the Tennyson Center for Children demonstrates ways to stay engaged with her son while discouraging damaging behavior. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Douglas County is focusing its efforts on mental health because that’s where local leaders believe they can make the biggest impact. 

“Should you have to be in the child welfare system in order to receive timely and adequate mental health services?” asked Daniel Mekelky, director of human services for Douglas County. “That is the crux of this.”

As mental health issues among the county’s youth have soared, the department hears regularly from parents who struggle to get private insurance companies and Medicaid to cover treatment. Parents call the abuse hotline, but the calls are not assigned a caseworker because there is no alleged abuse or neglect — they simply need services. 

Without help, the family dynamic worsens, problems escalate, and the youth becomes so out of control they become a ward of the state and go live either in a residential treatment center or a juvenile detention center. 

With funding from the Rewiring project, the county is directing families to community nonprofits that will provide services — an “alternate response” to the child welfare system. The human services department also has partnered with nine Douglas County schools, where counselors will connect students with the nonprofits, including the Juvenile Assessment Center and Manna Connect. 

They want to keep kids who aren’t experiencing abuse or neglect out of the child welfare system. 

As the system works now, “they do in fact have to get worse before they can come to the attention of our department,” said Ruby Richards, Douglas County human services deputy director.

Other counties involved in the first wave of the project — Boulder, Denver, Larimer and Eagle — are currently writing plans to show which types of families they plan to target and which local agencies can help. Boulder County, for example, is considering a focus on the abuse of kids from birth to age 3. 

In Eagle County, which typically has about 10 children in foster care and 35 open child welfare cases, officials are trying to figure out how to find families before they hear about them. Options up for discussion include offering services to families in poverty or to those with past criminal involvement, both factors that contribute to child neglect. The county also might look into truancy programs, providing services to youth who are regularly missing school. 

“How do you find the families that will eventually become child welfare-involved? That is the question,” said Kendra Kleinschmidt, deputy director of Eagle County human services. “I think some families have certain risk factors that we might be able to target.”

The project is already starting to take shape in the Denver metro area.

Keeping families out of the child welfare system

In a small, two-bedroom apartment, Erica Sullivan dumps out a box of colorful blocks on the living room floor. 

Sullivan, a licensed social worker with the Tennyson Center, is here to teach a single mom how to play with her 3-year-old son. Bigger-picture than that, she’s here to keep Jessica, whose last name is not used in this story because she recently escaped a violent marriage, and her son, Michael, out of the child welfare system.

Jessica sits across from Sullivan on the rug and picks up a plastic dinosaur, making it climb the mountain of blocks. 

For months, Sullivan has been helping Jessica and Michael to rebuild trust as they recover from the trauma of domestic violence. They talk about how Michael is so attached to his mom that it’s hard for Jessica to leave him at daycare, how the little boy gets too wound up and aggressive when they play, and how Jessica can give him undivided attention in five-minute bursts. Michael’s morning routine is posted on the living room wall — breakfast, brush teeth, favorite TV show, get dressed. 

Erica Sullivan, an early childhood clinician with the Tennyson Center for Children, listens to Jessica describe recent interactions with her 3-year-old son, Michael. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Sullivan suggested a few weeks back that Michael get a baby doll. “That doll has been a miracle,” Jessica tells her. “It helps with the gentleness.” 

Jessica left her ex-husband in 2018, the same day he punched her in the ear and fractured her jaw. Police called Arapahoe County child protective services, and a caseworker told Jessica she had two choices — she could leave her husband and take her son with her, or the boy could go to foster care.

She moved in with her mother until she could find her own apartment. 

More than a year later, Jessica was holding her toddler in a living room chair during a session with Sullivan when she burst into tears. Looking back, she says it was the moment she started to let go of the guilt she felt for not protecting her son. 

“My emotions shifted,” she said. “Michael’s emotions shifted.”

State budget writers have their eyes on child welfare

A 2018 federal law is forcing states to keep more kids out of group homes and institutions or forfeit federal funding. 

It’s called the Family First Prevention Services Act and will cost Colorado $11.5 million in its first year for new employees and data system upgrades. The premise is simple: It’s better for children to live with their own parents or relatives, or at least in foster families, than it is to live in group homes and residential treatment centers.

That’s a big shift, but it’s not nearly as big as what the “Rewiring” project is attempting to accomplish in Colorado. 

Family First is about preventing kids who are known to child protective services from having to leave their homes by offering their families counseling, parenting skills and other services. The Colorado plan is about preventing kids from ever entering the system in the first place.

The topic is one of frequent frustration at the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which authored a bill in 2018 that ordered the state human services department to launch a multi-year system-change initiative.

The budget committee asked the department to produce a timeline for a new model and to “explain why it has failed to implement the model in time for it to inform the General Assembly” prior to budgeting. 

Lawmakers and committee staff are hungry for change, and bigger change than is required by federal law. Several of them have met with Breslin about the “Rewiring” project in recent months.

Above the piano that 3-year-old Michael plays, a whiteboard with his sleep schedule reminds his mother of tips she’s learned from her sessions with Erica Sullivan from The Tennyson Center for Children. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Michelle Barnes, who was appointed as executive director of human services by Gov. Jared Polis last year, visited Tennyson Center a few months ago and talked to Breslin about his project. The two are outsiders in the child welfare system — Barnes was a serial interim CEO to several companies and Breslin spent most of his career at Water for People. 

“Instead of waiting for the state to do everything in terms of this culture shift in child welfare, he is just grabbing the bull by the horns, with a lot of friends,” Barnes said. “I thought it was just brilliant.”

The culture shift will have a long lead, Barnes said, noting that the government can’t abandon efforts to help those already in foster care or under investigation for abuse and neglect. “Short term, we can’t walk away from people in crisis,” she said. “The hope is that we will get fewer people in crisis, but that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...