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Opinion: Colorado has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change child welfare

We have the tools we need to strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect. Together, we can enrich our communities so that children and families flourish.

Minna Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth, and Families at the State Human Services Building in Denver. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Healthy childhoods don’t happen by chance. Like flowers in a garden, happy and healthy childhoods are locally grown. So we must cultivate relationships, connections and environments that help young people thrive. 

We —  neighbors, communities and policymakers — will harvest what we sow; therefore, we must plant seeds of support for families, ensuring all children can grow into healthier adults with abundant futures.

Minna Castillo Cohen

With a focus on growing strong children and families, those of us in child welfare are creating a new system — a child and family well-being system — in which we proactively strengthen and support families as early as possible, before they are in crisis. We do this by using the resources we have to build up community-based services to prevent abuse and neglect from happening in the first place.

Recently, with little fanfare, the Colorado Department of Human Services awarded about $230,000 to five organizations across Colorado to help us transition from a child welfare system to a child and family well-being system. 

The funding, awarded in amounts as small as $5,000 and as large as $99,000, came to Colorado by way of the federal government, which agrees that a shift in child welfare is long overdue and that it’s more effective (and less expensive) to strengthen a family early on instead of waiting to treat the trauma of child abuse and neglect.

In 2018, the U.S. Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, the most significant overhaul to child welfare in nearly three decades. For the first time, the federal government is allowing states to use federal child welfare dollars to help keep families together. Previously, states could only use federal funding if a child was removed from their home. 

This shift in federal policy mirrors Colorado’s long-held philosophy that children and families are better together. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Historically and currently, our state legislators have prioritized funding to provide families with supportive services that help keep them safely together. The results of this investment are in the numbers. 

Two years ago, 12 Colorado kids entered foster care every day. Today, we’re down to 10. When kids aren’t able to live with a parent for safety reasons, they’re more likely to be in a family-like setting with a relative, close family friend or foster family instead of a congregate-care facility, such as a group home or residential child care center. 

In fact, in the past 10 years, Colorado’s use of congregate care has decreased by more than half and is at an all-time low.

Much of the focus on Family First is about the shift in rules that impact congregate care. Family First requires that a stay in congregate care is temporary, treatment-focused and trauma-informed.

Significant changes lie ahead and we’re committed to supporting congregate-care partners as they strengthen practices and improve treatment outcomes for children and youth with complex clinical or behavioral health needs.

However, the changes for congregate care must not overshadow the larger changes taking root to keep families together. That brings me back to those five small grants we just awarded:

  • Right now, therapists in rural Colorado are offering a short-term treatment strategy to help kids and their families overcome delinquency, substance abuse and violence. 
  • On the Western Slope, an organization is tackling social isolation — often the root cause of child abuse and neglect — head-on.
  • In the metro area, a culturally and linguistically responsive mental health intervention will serve more than 30,000 Latinx children, youth and families. 
  • In Garfield County, a therapist is being trained to offer Parent-Child Interaction Therapy locally. 
  • And, across the state, a two-generation home visitation and skill-building program is expanding.

We have the tools we need right here in Colorado to strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect. Our goal at CDHS is to bring these tools together, strategically, so we can take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to change child welfare. 

Together, we can enrich our communities so that children and families flourish.


Minna Castillo Cohen is the director of the Office of Children, Youth and Families at the Colorado Department of Human Services.


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