A playground at Tennyson Center for Children in Denver, which provides treatment and therapy for foster youth and kids with severe mental health needs. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A panel of child welfare experts began the process Tuesday of strengthening Colorado regulations to better protect kids living in round-the-clock treatment centers for foster youth and children with severe mental health issues. 

The group, formed after a recent Colorado Sun/9 News investigation into runaways and lax supervision at residential facilities, will make recommendations about the way allegations of abuse and neglect are assessed. It will also examine whether caseworkers are required to document enough information about whether they chose to look into a complaint.

In the past two years, the state’s child protection ombudsman has raised concerns about how few of the allegations of abuse coming from children and staff inside 24-hour facilities are investigated. Denver County child welfare officials received 113 complaints about Tennyson Center for Children in 2020, yet caseworkers assigned just eight of those for further investigation, the ombudsman found. 

The rule-making group includes mostly county and state child protection officials, but also representatives from residential centers, including Tennyson Center, as well as foster family organizations, the state Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman and the Office of the Child’s Representative, which provides legal representation to children in court. 

The group will make recommendations about changes to the state child welfare rules, called Volume 7, to the nine-member state Board of Human Services, which has authority to change the rules. 

Some questions during the rule-making committee’s first meeting centered on whether representatives of children, foster families and residential centers would have equal say in the state process that involves several layers of bureaucracy and will stretch over the next year. Ultimately, it’s the Colorado Department of Human Services, which houses the state Board of Human Services, that rewrites the rules that state and county agencies must follow.  

Becky Miller Updike, director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children’s Agencies, which represents some of the largest residential centers in the state, said after the meeting that she hoped providers would have a voice in the process and that the group would look to other states regarding oversight of residential centers. 

In 2019, Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte asked state child welfare officials to strengthen rules regarding institutional abuse. 

The state rules require counties to use a team of caseworkers to determine whether to investigate reports of abuse or neglect within a family. But when it comes to reports of abuse or neglect at residential treatment centers, there is no requirement that a team of experts review the report to determine whether the case deserves further investigation. Instead, counties often have one caseworker who makes the decision, which is double-checked by a supervisor. 

Nothing came of the 2019 recommendation until the new committee was created late last month. 

The Sun/9News investigation, published May 17, found that two boys were struck by cars and died after running away from residential centers in Denver and Westminster. The reporting also found that centers are calling police, often multiple times per day, for help rounding up children who’ve run away from their campuses.

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: jennifer@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jenbrowncolo