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Tennyson Center for Children in northwest Denver closed its residential program for foster youth in early 2021 after numerous complaints about lack of supervision. (Eric Lubbers, Colorado Sun)

One of Colorado’s oldest homes for the most troubled foster children is closing its residential program after a series of dangerous lapses in care, including the death of a child who ran away and was struck by a car.

Youth at Tennyson Center for Children in northwest Denver were able to break into a drug cabinet, and one child required four days of dialysis after overdosing. Several foster kids and teens ran away from the center in the Highland neighborhood in the past several months, and a 12-year-old had sex with an 11-year-old child, according to records obtained by The Colorado Sun through public information laws. 

Tennyson’s license was under scrutiny by the state Department of Human Services when the center decided it would shut down its residential program and replace its dynamic CEO, a survivor of childhood abuse who was once in foster care himself.

The 116-year-old center, which cares for children with behavioral health issues who have typically already lived in several foster homes, is in the process of finding new homes for the remaining 13 kids and teens living there. Finding those new placements is a challenge, and the closure of the residential program is a blow to the state child welfare system when Colorado already had a shortage of beds for foster youth.

Tennyson will continue operating its day program, which includes an on-site school for children who have behavioral and psychological issues. 

“We hold ourselves accountable,” said James Young, a former Tennyson board member who was thrust into the interim CEO role last month. “We should have done better. What happened over the last year is not the standard for Tennyson Center for Children.”

Tennyson Center for Children, in northwest Denver, is finding new placements for 13 foster youth in its residential program. The center’s license was under review by state officials when it decided to shut down its residential program. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The residential side of Tennyson, where children typically live in groups of 10 in “cottages” on the urban campus, will remain closed for two or three months while its leaders make “wholesale changes to our operations” and evaluate whether to reopen, Young said. It’s unknown whether Tennyson will ever reopen its residential program and might instead focus on day-time and home-based services for foster youth who live in families or group homes, he said. 

“It was a sad day and a very difficult decision,” Young said. 

Tennyson also cut ties with former CEO and president Ned Breslin, who had led a multimillion-dollar fundraising effort to revamp the child welfare system in Colorado. Breslin, a former CEO of the global nonprofit Water for People who once gave a popular TED talk about growing up in an abusive home, was the face of Tennyson’s project, “Rewiring” — a plan to focus more money and energy on helping kids before they end up in residential treatment centers.

Breslin, who has written several opinion columns for The Colorado Sun about the child welfare system, declined to comment for this story, and Tennyson officials would only say he no longer works there “in any capacity.”

Perhaps we got too aggressive and took our eye off the main event, which is making sure we are taking care of our children with the highest standards.

James Young, interim CEO of Tennyson Center

But Young, without naming specifics, said Tennyson struggled in the past year because it became too focused on finding new sources of funding for Rewiring and “we took our eye off the ball a little bit.”

“Perhaps we got too aggressive and took our eye off the main event, which is making sure we are taking care of our children with the highest standards,” Young said. 

He also pointed to staff turnover, including losing the center’s compliance director, and a breakdown in internal quality controls. Tennyson failed to recognize the depth of its troubles before the problems caught the attention of child welfare officials and the state’s child protection ombudsman. Also, during the isolating days of the pandemic, children were suffering from abuse and neglect more acutely and for longer periods before reaching Tennyson, making workers’ jobs even more intense than usual, he said. 

The center houses young people who on average have been in seven or eight “failed placements,” he said, including children who are often prone to running away or trying to harm themselves.

Tennyson is licensed to house up to 32 foster youth in its residential program, but enrollment was only at 13 when Tennyson notified child welfare officials in the various counties that placed the children that the program was closing. Counties found eight of the children new placements last week, Young said. 

Moms, caseworker, health care worker reported problems to child ombudsman

The Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman notified state child welfare officials in November that the office had received four complaints about Tennyson within a five-week period. The most egregious — reported to the ombudsman by a caseworker from a nonprofit  organization — was the death of a 12-year-old who ran away and was struck and killed by a vehicle. 

The boy, who had autism and mental health issues, died June 23, two days after he was hit by the car. The death was reported to the state child abuse hotline, but not assigned for further investigation because local child protection officials said the allegation didn’t fit the legal definition of child abuse or neglect.

Then in July, three children broke into a drug cabinet and ingested various medications. All three were rushed to an emergency room, and one required four days on a dialysis machine. That complaint to the ombudsman came from a medical professional who was concerned about lack of supervision at Tennyson, according to records.

The children had bragged that they knew how to break the lock on a “sharps drawer” and further review revealed that they threatened staff with pizza cutters, the ombudsman found.

“I don’t think the concerns can be more serious than that,” Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte said in an interview. “And those came from individuals who reported to us. Otherwise, I’m not sure how or whether those cases would have become part of anybody’s awareness, which I think is equally concerning.”

The ombudsman’s investigation found that Denver County child welfare officials had received 113 complaints about Tennyson Center in 2020, yet the county had assigned just eight of those for further investigation. 

Stephanie Villafuerte, child protection ombudsman, at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 24, 2020, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The reports included allegations of sexual misconduct between children, runaways and children harming themselves. The ombudsman “is concerned that so many of these reports were determined to not meet the criteria for assessment when so many contain serious and concerning allegations,” the office wrote in the letter to state officials, obtained by The Colorado Sun through the Colorado Open Records Act. “The complaints allege a series of events that demonstrate youth may not be appropriately supervised.” 

Villafuerte said a “broad range of concerned citizens” contacted her office regarding Tennyson, including neighbors, children’s relatives, caseworkers and staff. 

The problems within the center echo those at El Pueblo Boys & Girls Ranch, a residential facility in Pueblo County for kids with severe behavioral and psychiatric problems that was ordered to shut down in 2017. A subsequent review by the ombudsman’s office, released in 2019, found that the closure did not happen until there were 243 reports of suspected abuse and neglect within one year —  most of which were not investigated. 

That investigation revealed that just 12% of the 219 reports to Pueblo County were investigated by the county, while the rest were screened out.

Villafuerte pointed out then what she considered a major flaw in the way the state oversees residential centers for children —  it’s often the local child welfare officials’ determination of abuse that triggers an investigation by the state team responsible for licensing residential centers. But what happens when local officials choose not to investigate dozens or hundreds of complaints?

In that 2-year-old report, the ombudsman recommended changes to the review structure, and she suggested the state set up a public website that would allow families to see how many times a residential center had been cited for abuse or neglect, similar to report cards for daycare centers and nursing homes. 

None exists, meaning there was no way for loved ones of foster children placed at Tennyson Center to know what was happening there.

“There is a lot we don’t know when it comes to the treatment of children in residential child care facilities,” Villafuerte said.

State listed 41 violations in warning to Tennyson

The Colorado Department of Human Services notified Tennyson in early February that its license was under review in a letter that cited 41 potential violations going back to 2015.

“The department has received information regarding consistent, willful and deliberate violation of child care licensing standards,” said the letter, obtained by The Sun from the state agency. Officials also accused the children’s home of providing “false and misleading information” to on-site child welfare inspectors regarding building repairs. 

The most recent of the violations cited in the letter revealed an overall lack of supervision, including children running outside the building into the streets, a child who somehow got a lighter and started papers on fire in a bedroom and another child who used a string to try to strangle themself. That child was unconscious and required CPR, according to the document. 

A playground at Tennyson Center for Children in Denver was empty last weekend. The center will keep operating its day program even as it closes its residential side. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The letter also included several allegations of physical harm of children by staff, including an employee dropping a child on the floor, another twisting a child’s arm and staff blocking kids from leaving their rooms. 

In response, Tennyson vowed to revamp its protocols to improve supervision, institute additional staff training and intensify efforts to fill vacant positions.

Within a few weeks, Tennyson announced it would close its residential program and change its leadership. 

Colorado is already short on residential treatment

Colorado was lacking about 100 beds at residential treatment centers for the most traumatized foster youth even before Tennyson decided to shut down. In the past 15 years, 43 residential programs for foster youth have closed, part of a trend nationally to instead place kids with relatives, in foster families or in group homes. 

But Colorado is also short about 1,000 foster homes, and especially specialized homes that offer mental health treatment. 

So the timing of Tennyson’s closure is particularly rough. 

I worry that they will go to foster placements that are not equipped to deal with their needs and they will run, and they will get harmed.

Stephanie Villafuerte, Child Protection OMbudsman

“Colorado, not unlike every other state in the country, is facing a real crisis about how we treat youth with severe behavioral health issues,” Ombudsman Villafuerte said. “It’s hugely concerning and we are already in crisis. I do worry about where these kids go. I worry that they will go to foster placements that are not equipped to deal with their needs and they will run, and they will get harmed.”

Whether Tennyson reopens will depend not just on its new safety measures, but on the economic outlook for the industry.

Under the federal Families First Prevention Services Act, states are required to shift more child welfare resources toward keeping children in family and home settings. Government reimbursement rates to house foster youth are so low that it’s difficult for residential treatment centers to provide quality care without going in the red, said Young, Tennyson’s interim CEO.

Though regulations require one staff member per eight youth, Tennyson tries to have two or three staff per eight children, 24 hours per day. It costs Tennyson about $400 per day, per child, but the reimbursement rate is $238. The center was losing almost $40,000 per year, per child in its residential program, trying to make up for the deficit through donations, Young said. 

Also, the federal regulations will reduce capacity at residential child centers to a maximum of 16. Tennyson, which is licensed for 32, has been dropping its population in the past year in preparation for the new requirements, Young said. 

For now, Tennyson has split up its remaining youth in three cottages, increased staff ratios and added extra check-in protocols to keep them safe, he said. 

No charges were filed in the death of the 12-year-old boy who was struck by a car last summer. Young said it was a private matter that he couldn’t discuss.

“Any time a child is harmed in any way and obviously in that way, a child under our care, we are tremendously saddened,” he said. “It is a horrible, unfortunate incident.”

Jennifer Brown

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...