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)

Colorado policymakers had big ambitions to help children in the juvenile justice, foster care and mental health systems this year. 

Lawmakers spurred by grim news about suicide, depression and the long-term effects of institutional care were fired up about passing new laws that would raise the prosecution age from 10 to 13, make sure kids who couldn’t go home after they were detained had a safe place to sleep, and reform the state’s troubled residential treatment centers for kids in foster care.

Some of those big-idea reforms for children were pushed to the side or relegated to task force conversations, though Colorado approved “once-in-a-generation” funding for children’s psychiatric care.  

The $55 million Youth and Family Behavioral Health Care Act will create new psychiatric treatment beds, substance abuse treatment beds and a 16-unit neuro-psychiatric center for children. It also sets up a respite care program for foster kids and families in seven regions statewide. 

Here’s a wrapup of other developments:

A task force will study youth residential center runaway problem

A monumental, two-part plan to reform Colorado’s residential centers for children and teens was reduced to a single plan to create a study group. 

The bill came after high-profile scrutiny of the 24/7 centers, which are for foster children who have already lived in multiple foster homes and for kids with such severe behavioral health problems that they’re out of their parents’ control. A joint Colorado Sun/9News investigation found that kids are running away from the centers every day and that two boys who ran away from different facilities were struck by cars and killed. 

The original proposal called for a massive overhaul of the centers, including an evaluation system that would allow families to see which centers had the most runaways and overdoses, as well as best mental health outcomes. The plan from Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte and Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, would have had the state partner with child welfare experts at the University of Denver and Colorado State University to develop the quality-assurance system. 

Villafuerte modeled the idea after one in Florida, which partners with Florida State University. 

But after an unexpectedly large fiscal note — which estimated the overhaul would cost more than $2 million per year — that portion of the legislation was scrapped. 

Lawmakers still passed the other part of the proposal, which creates a task force to determine how best to prevent kids from running away from residential centers, approving $99,500.

The panel is named 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. His mother, Elizabeth, attended the bill signing last month.

The ombudsman is taking applications for the panel, which will include people who’ve lived in youth residential centers. 

Creating temporary shelter for kids detained for minor crimes

A year ago, district attorneys across the state fired off a letter to the state child welfare division complaining that children were sleeping on floors of county office buildings and spending hours in the back of police cars because there is no place to send them for the night. 

State prosecutors said Colorado has failed to provide a place to sleep for kids who cannot return home after they’ve been detained either because they don’t have families or it’s unsafe for them to go home. The state has no beds for kids who are picked up for crimes not serious enough to justify locking them up, the district attorneys wrote. 

Previously, those kids would go to a detention center, regardless of whether their alleged crime was severe enough to warrant lockup. But state and federal laws have prohibited the practice. 

A new law signed in June sets up a plan to house these children, with the state giving $137,000 to the state Department of Human Services to contract with community service agencies for shelter beds. The state system is required to dispense the money to judicial districts across the state under a formula to be determined by a new task force. 

The funds will pay for up to five nights of temporary shelter for children and teens whose alleged crimes are not serious enough to require going to a juvenile justice center. After five days, kids must go home or to a foster care placement. 

The original legislation, also from Rep. Michaelson Jenet, would have allowed county human services agencies to contract with local homeless shelters, youth residential centers or other agencies to provide temporary shelter. The bill was rewritten to put the program in control of the state human services agency.

Panel to look at child abuse reporting requirements

The death of a 7-year-old girl whose mother was convicted of medically abusing her by lying to doctors and inventing symptoms is prompting changes to Colorado’s child abuse reporting law. 

A 34-member task force is set to study the state’s so-called mandatory reporting laws over the next two years. The original proposal called for major changes to the law following the death of Olivia Gant, who died in 2017. Even though staff at Children’s Hospital Colorado were concerned the girl was abused, they did not alert authorities and instead investigated the matter internally, according to a Denver Post investigation.

The state currently requires people in 42 professions — including doctors, teachers and coaches — to report suspected child abuse and neglect to child welfare authorities. The initial wording of the legislation this year would have made clear that hospitals cannot conduct their own investigation and avoid making a report to the child welfare system. Instead, the task force will determine how to make the law more effective, how to train mandatory reporters and how schools, hospitals and others should handle suspected child abuse.  

The mandatory reporting law, created 30 years ago, has had little scrutiny since then, according to the state’s child protection ombudsman’s office. Several times, lawmakers have added professions to the list of mandatory reporters but it’s unclear how many of those professionals actually receive any training.  

The panel’s final report is due in January 2025. 

A task force will study arrests of 10-12-year-olds

The original version of this bill would have removed kids 10, 11 and 12 years old from juvenile court jurisdiction, except in cases of homicide. Only kids 13 and older would have faced the possibility of prosecution and time in a locked juvenile jail. 

Instead of an immediate change in juvenile justice law, the law signed by Gov. Jared Polis created a 32-member panel of experts — law enforcement officers, child protection officials and people who spent time in juvenile detention centers — to study the matter. The group has until the end of the year to report back on how the youngest offenders would get access to services and treatment outside of the state’s youth corrections system. 

A common room outside a boys’ pod in the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden. Colorado’s Division of Youth Services has transformed spaces to appear more like a home than a correctional facility. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Young children who are arrested are more likely to end up in the adult prison system, experience violence while in lockup and have mental health problems as adults. They are also less likely to graduate from high school. Also, kids of color are more likely than white children to be sentenced to time in a juvenile justice center.

Colorado is one of 15 states that arrest and prosecute kids as young as 10, while 28 states have no minimum age. 

Proponents of the change in law, while disappointed the bill was reduced to a task force, said it’s a first step toward change.

Update: This story was updated July 8 to correct the proposed fiscal note for an overhaul of youth residential centers.