State group studies child welfare issues

Task force releases 34 recommendations

Hoping it provides more mechanisms to protect children from abuse instead of tying up the system in more bureaucracy, Moffat County Department of Social Services officials are anxiously awaiting the final report from the Governor's Task Force on Child Welfare.

The report, released this month, outlines 34 recommendations to the Colorado Department of Human Services for improving the system so no abused child slips through the cracks.

"Many of the recommendations would create far more bureaucracy," Moffat County Department of Social Services Director Marie Peer said. "I've not really noticed that more bureaucracy makes for better service delivery."

Gov. Bill Owens appointed the 19-member task force in early 1999 after four children died following allegations that abuse and neglect were reported, but not investigated.

The task force was formed to review the system and make recommendations to improve it.

"Task force members spent thousands of hours intensively focusing on finding ways to improve the system with one constant mission in mind: save children from needless abuse, neglect and death," said Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers a task force member.

Of the approximate 1,050,000 children in Colorado, 46,462 had contact with social service departments in 1998. In Moffat County, 146 cases of child abuse, neglect or sexual abuse were reported through September 1999 to the Department of Social Services.

"I'm all for improving services," Peer said. "Some of the recommendations are things we already do. We're always trying to improve."

Some of the recommendations that might impact local agencies include:

Include professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and unlicensed psychotherapists with those required by law to report suspected abuse.

Create an Office of Child and Family Advocacy in the governor's office to receive complaints related to programs for children that are supervised by the Colorado Department of Human Services.

According to Peer, a state level complaint office already exists and creating another would be a duplication of services.

Require county social service departments to investigate allegations after receiving the third complaint even if two previous complaints were screened out. Now, departments must investigate allegations after the fourth complaint.

Improve existing state and local complaint resolution processes.

Amend Colorado statutes to improve the local Citizen Review Panel at the county level. According to the report, the current process is lengthy and ineffective.

"When it is believed the recommendations and actions of the local department of social services are not meeting the needs of the child or family, another avenue for intervention should be available," the report states.

Moffat County has a Citizen Review Panel that has never been used, Peer said. In fact, there has never been a service complaint that has reached the Moffat County Board of Commissioners. All issues are usually taken care of immediately in the social services office.

"We do everything we can to fix the problem," she said.

Amending statutes to improve the Citizen Review Panel is probably a waste of legislative time, Peer said, because as far as she knows panels across the state have only been used three times since the began.

The Department of Human Services should establish customer service guidelines for state and county employees to follow.

Peer said if the recommendations help even one child, they're worth the time and cost of implementation, but many of the recommendations are already in place.

The Department of Social Services does not have written customer services guidelines, but it does have goals.

"Our mission statement is to treat people with the highest amount of respect and the highest amount of regard," Peer said.

One recommendation Peer believes was the best and most workable was one outlining a closer relationship between the agencies that deal with child abuse.

"It's the most workable and I think it would have the greatest positive effect," she said.

That recommendation did not make the final cut and is not listed in the final report.

Peer is happy that child abuse is being addressed on this scale statewide, and she hopes the effort comes to a good end.

"I think this task force really wants to stop child abuse," she said. "But it's really important that things that prevent child abuse be implemented, not ones that increase bureaucracy."

According to Colorado Department of Human Services Public Relations Specialist Liz McDonough, the recommendations won't be acted upon until approved by Owens, an event scheduled to occur within the next few days. Once approved, the department will develop work groups for each recommendation and establish timelines.

McDonough wouldn't say whether the Department of Human Services supported the recommendations.

"It really doesn't matter what we think, it matters what the governor thinks," she said. "The department does feel the recommendations are doable."

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