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A playground at Tennyson Center for Children, which provides services for foster children in northwest Denver. Tennyson closed its residential program in 2021. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Nate Hailpern was always running toward his mother, bolting from every foster home or residential treatment center he lived in as a kid in the hopes of calling her and going home. 

“I ran from everywhere,” said Hailpern, who now has three of his own children and works to help families keep their kids out of the child welfare system. 

Tamisha Macklin entered foster care at age 6 and by the time she was a teenager, was living on the streets after running away from her grandma and multiple foster homes, including one where she felt like a maid and had to scrub the floor on her hands and knees. 

“I just really struggled with belonging anywhere,” she said. “I always felt like a burden.” 

The two spoke Wednesday at the first meeting of a new task force created by the state legislature to figure out how to keep children from running away from foster care placements. The panel — which includes former foster kids, foster parents, social workers, a police officer and county child welfare officials — will meet for two years to come up with solutions. 

The task force comes after investigations by the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman into residential treatment centers, including El Pueblo Boys & Girls Ranch, which was shut down by the state in 2017. Last year, 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 state child welfare system does not keep track of how many kids and teens in the child welfare system are missing on a daily basis. In the last year, 35 young people left foster care by running away, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services data. That compares to 208 who emancipated and 745 who were adopted. 

“As we sit here today, there are many youth who are on the run and have not been located,” said Stephanie Villafuerte, the state’s child protection ombudsman. 

“When youth run, they are in danger. They face dangers on the street, including sex trafficking, violence. We also know that the number of runaway records far exceeds our law enforcement community’s ability to not only find these children, seek them out, but also to return them. We learned obviously, and sadly, tragically, that when youth run, they not only can get hurt, but they die.”

The task force is named for 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 Montoya, gave an emotional account of her son’s mental health struggles and the agony of not knowing for 26 hours where he had gone after running away from the residential center. 

He was lying in a hospital bed in a coma. He died 12 hours after Montoya reached the hospital. 

Timothy Montoya-Kloepfel died after he was hit by a car after running away from Tennyson Center for Children. He was 12 when he died in June 2020. (Provided by Elizabeth Montoya)

She asked the panel to look into improving communication among youth residential centers, law enforcement and hospitals. She said she also has concerns about her son’s dosage of medication, which was increased just before he went into the Tennyson Center, and whether the staff caring for him was aware of his history of running away. And Montoya spoke of the gaps in mental health services Timmy experienced in the last few years of his life.

“There are so many things that we can address here,” she said. 

Brandon Miller, executive director of Southern Peaks Regional Treatment Center in Cañon City, told the Timothy Montoya Task Force that staff at youth facilities have to follow strict guidelines that prevent them from physically restraining kids, even to stop them from running away. 

“At its basic level, people who are in crisis do one of three things — fight, flee or freeze,” he said. “When these kids run they are in crisis.” 

Timmy and Andrew Potter, 15, were killed in separate incidents with similar details — both were struck by cars late at night after running away from different residential treatment centers, two years apart.

Their deaths and the escalating runaway problem at some residential child care facilities sparked calls for investigation and allegations from residential centers that they were suffering from years of inadequate state funding. Some called for review of state regulations that prohibit centers from locking their doors or using physical force to prevent children from running away. 

Lawmakers approved $99,500 for the task force’s operations. The two-year project will include research assistance from the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab at the University of Denver. The panel must submit reports to the legislature next year and in October 2024.

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...