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Statue figures of children playing outside the Mount Saint Vincent home pictured on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Denver, CO. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado would have to create new standards for residential centers that house foster children as well as examine how best to prevent kids from running away from those centers under a new legislative proposal.   

The bill follows high-profile scrutiny of the 24/7 residential centers, including a joint Colorado Sun/9News investigation that found that children and teens are running away daily and that two boys who ran away from different facilities were struck by cars and killed. 

The legislation from Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City, would require the state to partner with a university to build the new quality-assurance system. And it would require a public, online dashboard where parents and others could see whether centers are safe and are improving kids’ mental health. 

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks about mental health parity to an audience at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 Forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus on Jan. 14, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In addition, the state would have to create a task force of experts, former foster youth and child welfare officials to examine why children run away and how to prevent them from fleeing residential care. The bill proposes to name the panel after Timmy Montoya-Kloepfel, who was 12 when he ran away from Tennyson Center for Children in Denver in June 2020 and died after he was hit by a Chevy Tahoe. 

Where is our sense of urgency for children who have severe behavioral health issues that are in an isolated, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week facility?

Stephanie Villafuerte, child protection ombudsman

The legislation was crafted by a team of child advocates including Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte, who has been seeking change at residential institutions since 2019, when she called for a public website similar to the state’s day care center website that would offer data on outcomes. 

“Where is our sense of urgency for children who have severe behavioral health issues that are in an isolated, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week facility?” she said in an interview Friday, after the legislation was introduced. “We have been alerted — between citizens calling our office and people responding to news media articles — and three years later, we still have not designed a system that would show us what’s going on in those facilities. 

“I think it’s unconscionable. I’m exhausted by systems that put adults’ needs, our bureaucracies, our budgets and everything before the needs of kids. And this is one of those issues.” 

Villafuerte studied a new quality-assurance system for Florida youth residential centers, which that state created in partnership with Florida State University child welfare experts. The ombudsman said she already has consulted with social scientists at the University of Denver and Colorado State University. 

The requirement that the state would partner with an institution of higher education means that the state child welfare division, within the Colorado Department of Human Services, would not have sole responsibility for designing the new evaluation system. It’s another sign of mounting frustration between the ombudsman’s office and the state department, which initiated a task force to address the runaway problems after The Sun/9News investigation but has not sought any major policy changes. 

Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 24, 2020, in Denver. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The news organizations found that in a three-year timeframe, Denver police were called to Tennyson Center for Children 938 times, one-third of the time because a child ran away. Denver police were called to Mount Saint Vincent about twice per week throughout 2019 and 2020, so often that the police department told the residential center it was not a “taxi service” to bring back runaway children. 

Similar to Timmy, 15-year-old Andrew Potter was killed in 2018 after running away from Devereux Cleo Wallace in Westminster. He died after being struck by a suspected drunk driver on Wadsworth Parkway. 

The state child welfare division keeps track of how many foster children run away from foster homes and residential centers, but not many other details about those cases. 

“When they run, this state has no consistency on how we locate them, when we bring them back, the treatment or evaluations that they should receive,” Villafuerte said. “And at this point, I can’t even tell you the exact number of youth in our state who have run from out-of-home placements, foster care, residential treatment facilities, how long they’ve been gone, when they returned and what happened to them while they were on the run.” 

The task force, which would include young people who spent time in residential facilities, would consider ideas to prevent kids from running away, and to prevent kids from running into harm on the streets. For example, residential centers could make sure children with a history of running away have phone numbers to call for help. Also, the state could set up a standard protocol for kids who have returned from running away to make sure they get proper mental health treatment. The group also could review current state regulations that restrict when staff can physically restrain a child. 

The scrutiny of residential centers comes as many centers have shut down in Colorado. Since 2007, 44 facilities have closed, a loss of 2,200 therapeutic beds, according to the Colorado Association of Family and Children’s Agencies. The closures follow a nationwide call by child advocates and federal officials that more children should live in foster families or with relatives, rather than institutions.

But now Colorado has a severe shortage of options for kids with the most acute behavioral health issues, meaning kids are sent out of state for treatment, a situation the child protection ombudsman called “unacceptable.” 

“In extraordinary circumstances, these facilities are necessary,” Villafuerte said. “They are important for a very small segment of our youth to get the care that they need.”

The proposal says the new quality-assurance system would go into place by July 2026, with a preliminary report due next year.

The bill is the latest from Michaelson Jenet to tackle the children’s mental health crisis. Another piece of legislation she introduced this session would allow county child welfare divisions to set up agreements with local agencies that could take in children who have been picked up by law enforcement but cannot go home. That bill arose after counties said children were sleeping in county buildings and waiting hours in the back of police cars when they had no family to house them or it wasn’t safe to bring them home.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...