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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)

At first, the child protection worker’s supervisor noticed missing notes in a handful of cases of alleged abuse and neglect. 

Then more cases looked suspicious, as if the caseworker’s details about checking on children and their families weren’t actually true. After an outside team — a crew of 15 caseworkers from nine counties — was dispatched to Craig to review her work, they discovered a pattern of fraudulent paperwork like nothing any of them had experienced in their careers, according to documents obtained by The Colorado Sun through public information requests. 

The out-of-town team, which was housed in a Craig hotel for two weeks, reviewed more than 250 cases involving alleged abuse or neglect of children or adults with disabilities. Of those, the team identified about 80 in which they had to start over from the beginning, knocking on doors and checking on suspected victims to determine if they were safe. 

In multiple cases, the child protection worker appeared to have fabricated details, including that she had checked on kids or interviewed parents or guardians, according to records from the Colorado Department of Human Services, which organized the outside team to review the cases.

The cases went back several months, raising questions about why the county didn’t detect there was a problem sooner.  

No children were found to have been injured or killed because of the shoddy casework, the records say. But memos and letters from the state child welfare division and the Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman’s Office obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act make it clear the rural county’s division of child welfare and adult protective services was overwhelmed. 

This is why we exist. We are the early-alert system. We are the ones that citizens talk to directly when they are concerned about the health and safety of a kid.

Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte

The Moffat County District Attorney’s Office confirmed it is investigating the matter, though charges have not yet been filed. The caseworker’s name was redacted from documents released by the state. 

State child welfare officials declined to discuss the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Moffat County Human Services Director Annette Norton called it a “personnel matter” and refused to answer questions.

But records show the state and the child protection ombudsman began taking a closer look at Moffat County in the summer and fall of 2019. 

A statewide performance-monitoring system, which scores county child welfare divisions on how well they respond to suspected cases of abuse or neglect and whether they make face-to-face contact with suspected victims within required timeframes, alerted state officials that Moffat County was slipping. 

Around the same time, Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte’s office received three separate reports from citizens in Moffat County who said local caseworkers had failed to check on children. 

In one case, reported in July 2019, a citizen said a baby who needed medications to survive had missed pediatrician appointments and that caregivers had not refilled the infant’s prescription. The allegation was urgent enough that, under Colorado law, it required a caseworker to check on the baby within three days. But according to the statewide database of child welfare cases, no caseworker had done so. 

In a September 2019 report, a citizen told the ombudsman’s office that a child was injured while in the care of grandparents and not been taken to a doctor for treatment. Again, the complaint to local child welfare officials lacked documentation noting the report was properly investigated, the ombudsman found. 

And in December 2019, another Moffat County resident told the ombudsman’s office that two children were sexually abused and that local authorities had not followed up. The ombudsman discovered that the county had received eight reports about the same children during a nine-month period and that Moffat County determined that none warranted review. 

Villafuerte’s office alerted both the county and the state child welfare division about the citizen complaints, and in an interview Wednesday, questioned why it took seven more months for officials to discover the alleged fraud.

“This is why we exist. We are the early-alert system,” the ombudsman said. “We are the ones that citizens talk to directly when they are concerned about the health and safety of a kid, and when in turn we review these cases and find there to be compliance violations, we raise that flag. And we did that in this case. Not once, but three different times.”

“It begs the question, what does happen once we raise the flag? How quickly are things looked into and how quickly are things remedied?”

Staffing issues plagued the department  

State child welfare officials began meeting with Moffat County in September 2019 to figure out why the county wasn’t keeping up with its caseload and to offer help with staffing. The far northwestern Colorado county had 10 people quit between March and November 2019, according to a letter to the ombudsman from the county human services director. 

That was 40% of the staff of the human services department, and did not even include that the department had already lost its previous director and child welfare supervisor. A full staff is five caseworkers, who investigate both abuse and neglect allegations of children as well as those of at-risk adults. 

The new director scrambled to hire experienced folks for a hard job with low pay, and even reached out to nearby counties for temporary help to fill the gaps. 

When the state began asking questions in September 2019, all of the division’s workers except a supervisor and the “fraudulent worker,” as she is called in state records, were new to the job. 

That fall, the county had about 100 overdue assessments of abuse and neglect cases spanning more than a year. 

Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on Feb. 24 in Denver. ( Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The state’s goal was to provide enough support to Moffat County caseworkers to clear the backlog. At the time, it seemed to local and state officials that it was a matter of records not being entered into the statewide database — not a matter of fake documentation or victims who hadn’t actually been seen. 

But by April, it was becoming obvious that something bigger was wrong, according to records. 

Moffat County notified the state that the caseworker was no longer working there and that 36 assessments had no documentation. The caseworker initially said she had done the visits and had the notes, but just hadn’t entered them into the system. But, in many cases, she didn’t have the notes of the purported family visits to back up her claims, state documents say. 

As the county looked deeper into the casework, colleagues found potential fraud in a handful of cases. In one case review, the county found “there were inconsistencies in the observed details of the home and the previously documented notes of the home,” according to state records. In other words, it seemed the caseworker had not actually visited the residence.

By the summer, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials decided to round up a team of 15 caseworkers for a full-blown review of about 250 files. The caseworker under investigation worked two separate stints of about one year each for Moffat County, the last stint ending in April.

Caseworkers from nine counties, plus two state child welfare officials, spent two weeks in July at a Quality Inn & Suites, redoing about 80 abuse and neglect assessments to make sure victims were safe and that decisions about whether they should live with parents, foster parents or other guardians had been properly evaluated. 

State has taken over day-to-day operations of adult services

As the child welfare team reviewed abuse and neglect cases suspected of fraud, they notified the state Office of Adult, Aging and Disability Services whenever they found a case involving an adult with disabilities. That office began its own investigation to determine whether at-risk or older adults were safe.

Then in August, that state office took over day-to-day operations of Moffat County’s adult protective services unit, an arrangement that continues.

In an emailed statement to the Sun, state human services communications director Mark Techmeyer said that as soon as Moffat County notified the state about problems with its case reports, the state “immediately joined the county’s efforts that were underway to review the child welfare assessments as quickly as possible.” 

He also praised Moffat County’s efforts, saying staff there responded to the year-long review “with openness, integrity, transparency and with a clear commitment to their community.”

Moffat County is in far northwestern Colorado, bordering Wyoming and Utah. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Villafuerte, the state ombudsman, said it’s common for rural child welfare divisions to struggle to maintain their workforce. That was the reason behind a 2010 recommendation from the Colorado Child Welfare Action Committee that rural areas regionalize their child protection agencies, pooling workers and helping each other fill in gaps when workers quit or take a leave of absence. 

“That’s a discussion that comes up periodically to this day,” she said. “Recruitment and retention is really tough. It’s the single biggest issue that’s been identified in rural jurisdictions.”

Villafuerte said Moffat County’s struggles are similar to those of another rural county child welfare division investigated by the ombudsman last year. In 2019, the ombudsman released a months-long investigation into Montezuma County that began with citizen complaints. The office found that the county had violated multiple state regulations intended to protect children from abuse and neglect. 

“It’s important never to look at these as a one-off situation,” Villafuerte said. “There is a thread here, that as a system we need to sit down and analyze. Are rural jurisdictions struggling with resources and if so how do we make sure they get the help they need before a problem is elevated to this extent. 

“Did we as a system fail Moffat County? Maybe that’s the question. As opposed to, did Moffat County fail its community? Frankly, we need to ask both.” 

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