Craig The Moffat County Department of Social Services received state authorization Tuesday to implement a new corrective action plan.
Social Services drafted the plan in response to a state review released Jan. 11 that outlined department shortcomings in complying with state standards.
The corrective plan's first directive addresses how new cases are first handled, requiring supervisors approve caseworker decisions on how to proceed after the first 30 days.
Also included are provisions mandating more use of the court system, so families comply with safety plans, as well as requirements to document all aspects of casework for state review. All provisions must be applied by Sept. 29 or sooner.
"What is really important to us is permanency, safety and well-being," Social Services Director Marie Peer said. "We have had excellent reviews since the December review, including an in-home review here March 28 through 30, good enough to make us No. 4 of all the counties in Colorado. Our responsibilities are clear, and we plan to work with the community to address them."
The state report
The Colorado Department of Human Services review was critical of how Social Services handled new cases, reporting some instances where follow-up appointments were not conducted within the 90-day requirement.
Peer agreed with the report that there are some areas in which her department needs to improve.
"We need to ensure that investigations are carried out in a timely manner," she said. "That there are safety plans for kids that aren't being taken out of home. and that we do 90-day follow-up reviews, which this county has done better than most because we require that a supervisor sit down with the caseworker.
"We are going to get this down, get it down pat and get it down well."
County commissioner Tom Gray, who oversees Social Services, said he is positive steps for improvement will be taken.
"Everyone has been proactive and goal-oriented in addressing any concerns," he said.
Gray added the Jan. 11 review was a first draft sent to Moffat County, and it contained many errors.
"There were several times where the state said that records did not exist when they actually did," he said. "There were some severe problems, too; some things that weren't done as timely as they should have been."
Karen Aragon, Volunteer/Youth Services coordinator at Advocates-Crisis Support Services, recalled the January review being fairly accurate.
At the time, she was a member of the Child Protection Team, a group of residents - including Gray - the county probation office, churches and Advocates. She was interviewed by the state when the review was written.
"I though they were fairly accurate complaints," she said. "It was based on concern from a lot of people related with Social Services about how they were working with other groups, specifically the Child Protection Team, and some decisions they had made. There had not been enough communication with the management (at Social Services)."
The road forward
The one area of Social Ser-vices operations overhauled the most since the state review has been record keeping and communication with the state.
Before, there had been limited use of the Trails system, a computer database of all interviews, family service plans, assessments and notes regarding every case.
The state requires an entry for each of these when they happen, but Moffat County Social Services had not recorded some interviews or some service plans, leading to confusion and the suspicion that in some cases these documentations never took place.
This amounted to underserved children who remained in unstable situations much longer than they should have, according to the state's review.
"In those cases where it was not going to go to court," Peer said, "the family service plan would be hand-written so that the person that the plan was for could see it right there. They could sign it, they could change it, they could make sure it was exactly the way they wanted to have it done."
Matt Harris, Social Services child welfare supervisor, has started weekly training and instituted more requirements for caseworkers to work with Trails.
"Trails is set up with a lot of rules saying that some things are required and some are not required," Peers said. "What we have done is say to our caseworkers that Trails is required. If it's not in Trails, it didn't happen. : As those trainings have been done, people are being held accountable for what needs to go into it."
The state review also cited Social Services' failure to seek court intervention when a family refused assistance.
While it acknowledged court oversight is not necessary in most child protection situations, it maintained that, in some cases, it is the only effective leverage to ensure a child's care.
The review stated it was an unofficial Social Services policy to not open or pursue cases where the family refused assistance.
"We are currently going through the system to see if there was any reluctance on our part," Peer said. "But I believe that we look really hard to see if there is enough evidence to file with the courts. This is very important for us to address. We've always had a policy that says we call law enforcement for every case and they decide if they want to be involved. From now on, we will bring cases to judges sooner."
Peer said it is important for Social Services to only seek foster care when a child's environment is unsafe. She said Social Services works very closely with law enforcement to decide the best course of action.
Liz McDonough, of the Colorado Department of Human Services, outlined the process following their review.
"We are monitoring Moffat County Social Services monthly," McDonough said. "Our child welfare staff will be coming six months after a plan is approved. They will look at case files and interview the staff and families to make sure that the plan is being implemented effectively."
Aragon, who resigned from the Child Protection Team in April to allow for new voices, is hopeful meaningful change has taken place.
"The protection of children is of the utmost importance to me, and that is the priority for the Child Protection Team and Social Services," she said.
Peer has new plans to involve community members more completely through better cooperation with the Child Protection Team. She hopes to be able to bring in a certified health counselor to the community and recruit more couples to be foster parents so children will not have to be moved hours away from Craig.
"There are some areas that need to be better addressed within the community," Peer said, "and I'd like the Child Protection Team to be the lead in what needs to happen. Right now, there are not enough community services and support."