Colorado projects a $3.1 billion shortfall this year, and the impact of more than 25% cuts to state spending will be felt across every community in the state.
While the Joint Budget Committee is leading us through a necessary process to balance our budgets and stakeholders are pulling out their bullhorns and shifting to defense, Colorado can still harness our entrepreneurial spirit and move forward, not back, in advancing child mental health and welfare.
One thing we have clearly learned from the COVID-19 experience thus far is that creativity and innovation have sprung up where flexibility was swiftly given to previously rigid bureaucratic processes.
With extended and expansive flexibility, child welfare could focus on sustainably exiting more children from the system while simultaneously investing “upstream” to reduce the number of kids and families coming into the system.
Likewise, additional flexibility could allow the shrinking number of pediatric mental health providers to partner more creatively with schools and child care providers to support the heightened needs of children during this challenging time.
Now is the time for Colorado to liberate child welfare and mental health leaders from the stranglehold of current funding practices that are tied to specified programs, services and even the maintenance of departments.
The governor, a true entrepreneur, can take the lead from our philanthropic community – like the Colorado Health Foundation – which has used the crisis to release restrictions on funding so that agencies could do what they needed to get the results they aspired to achieve more quickly.
Government can do the same – releasing restrictions and insisting on departments justifying how they would use their overall allocation to achieve some clearly stated goals rather than simply funding existing programs and services – albeit at lower rates. New approaches to accountability can ensure that a nimbler state government meets or exceeds prior outcomes.
Human service and mental health funding in Colorado is divided into silos, tying the hands of state and county leaders who – in our experience – would welcome the opportunity to be held to ambitious and specific goals if they had the spending authority to invest their funding creatively, beyond the narrow funding restrictions that dominates our pre-COVID-19 world.
We bet that entrepreneurial leaders would embrace the opportunity to reduce the percentage of children and families becoming involved in child welfare by (say) 20% and increase the percentage of children sustainably exiting by (say) 25% if they could be liberated to invest for these results.
If creative funding toward success is encouraged, we will see extensions of unique child welfare partnerships – like the one that now exists between counties across the Front Range, service providers like Tennyson, Savio, Shiloh House and Children’s Hospital Colorado – which combined financial resources (because they could) and talents across all counties and agencies to create a COVID-19 quarantine system for children in child welfare who may have been exposed to coronavirus.
Children at risk of coronavirus have been safely removed from their foster homes and residential facilities, quarantined, and eventually tested at Children’s Hospital Colorado before safely reintegrating back into their homes and residential facilities. This work has protected the rest of the children and families at these locations, ensured children are cared for in this crisis, and forged alliances that center on child and family needs in ways that transcend any particular service or program.
This newly minted county/service provider/hospital consortium is now exploring ways to collaborate to more effectively and sustainably transition children from residential to permanent homes so they can eventually leave child welfare, reduce costs to society and thrive.
We might also find that it is less expensive to do exactly this. By liberating leaders to deliver results instead of simply spending money on pre-determined programs (regardless of justification or outcome), we can encourage new alliances like the one outlined above, across multiple sectors, that might prove less costly and more impactful than current practice.
We know this approach to public programs and services is radical in some ways. Change is never easy, and with tax dollars more precious than ever, accountability must be built in every step of the way to ensure that Coloradans are getting more and better results for their hard-earned dollars.
Yet no one can argue that Colorado’s current child welfare or mental health systems are serving children perfectly. And in a world where budget cuts are inevitable, now more than ever this is an essential way of thinking and acting.
Colorado should harness its entrepreneurial spirit and support creative and innovative solutions to meet the increased demand for child welfare and child mental health.
Extend even greater flexibility to our leaders, focus on buying outcomes, not just programs, and ultimately remove some of the bureaucratic processes, program limitations and government agency restrictions that end up costing the state dearly.
It is the only way we can meet the needs of our children when fewer resources are available to support them, and it is the only way to ensure that Colorado emerges from COVID-19 stronger than before.
Edward D Breslin is President and CEO, Tennyson Center for Children. Heidi Baskfield is Vice President, Population Health & Advocacy, Children’s Hospital Colorado.
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