A neighbor is concerned that the girl who lives next door is being sexually abused. So concerned, in fact, that she has called Child Welfare to report it.
Among some of the ominous details she might pass along: The teenage girl has been talking about sex and mimicking sex acts; the children in the home are allowed to watch pornography by the adults; the house is filthy; the mother is clearly doing drugs.
All these claims are amalgamated from real referrals that have filtered into El Paso County's Department of Human Services' Child Welfare division over the past two months. Many such referrals for abuse and neglect are of this nature, a chilling collection of anecdotes, suspicions and opinions.
Yet as distressing as they might be, DHS workers have a responsibility to not overreact. They must review each claim with an eye toward protecting not only the child from possible victimization, but also the parent from potentially undeserved, nerve-racking governmental intrusion. It's a delicate balancing act, one that they need to manage over and over again.
For the last three years, El Paso County's department has received more than 12,000 annual claims of abuse or neglect, or more than 30 a day. Among other counties, only Denver has crested 10,000.
Each referral has been reviewed, and about half have been investigated, a job that falls largely to a staff of 40 caseworkers. In 2012, their investigations revealed that 977 cases qualified as abuse or neglect. That's compared to 794 such cases in 2010.
Only a few cases ever make the news, and they're usually the ones that have gone wrong. Late last year, the Denver Post ran a sweeping series of articles, essentially excoriating DHS for its failures to prevent child deaths. It was a statewide look, but the very first article in the series opened with the 2007 story of an El Paso County family, known to local DHS, in which the foster mother wound up killing a 2-year-old in her care.
News outlets have also gotten mileage from the news that 10 children were killed locally in 2011, though it's been lesser-reported that, as county Child Welfare manager Karen Logan points out, in eight of those cases the family had no previous involvement with DHS. "How would we know?" she asks.
Logan says the majority of the employees of Child Welfare have masters degrees or above, and caseworkers get at least 40 hours of training each year to re-certify. What they don't get is a crystal ball. So it's with that in mind that state DHS officials and Gov. John Hickenlooper are attempting to improve their tools and training to better prevent the unfortunate and unthinkable.
This month, Hickenlooper launched "Keeping Kids Safe and Families Healthy 2.0," marking the second stage, and second year, in the state's plan to reform the child welfare system. Much of this initiative focuses on redesigning the front end of the process, such as the implementation of a statewide hotline to report child abuse or neglect, and the expansion of training for mandatory reporters, such as schoolteachers or day care providers. Also key to this redesign will be the statewide implementation of Review, Evaluate, Direct (RED) Teams, groups that will vet referrals of abuse claims and decide whether or not to investigate, and with what immediacy.
"We think that better decisions are made," says Julie Krow, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families, "rather than just [having] a supervisor make a decision."
In El Paso County, RED Teams have operated as standard practice since fall 2010. Three RED Team meetings happen daily, Monday through Friday. Supervisors, caseworkers and some support staff are expected to attend a certain number of times each month, and each meeting typically lasts 90 minutes.
Before Hickenlooper announced that RED Teams would go statewide, we visited two of these meetings to get a sense of how they work. Both happened to be devoted to vetting claims of sexual abuse. At each, a team of five looked specifically at about a dozen allegations of sexual abuse, listening to and debating the merits of each claim.
The meetings took place in a small conference room with whiteboard-covered walls. Written on one was Colorado Revised Statute 19-1-103, definitions in what is known as the Children's Code, which sets the legal parameters of what is abuse and neglect. For instance: "Any case in which a child is a child in need of services because the child's parents, legal guardian, or custodian fails to take the same actions to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision that a prudent parent would take."
In each meeting, a worker read from the case files, one at a time. Standing against a second wall of whiteboards, another employee listened to each account and wrote down its key elements, organizing them roughly as shown on the right-hand page. The goal: to help everyone focus on the facts (or lack thereof) at hand, and to somehow remove emotion from an emotionally charged equation.
The date of the referral and the family name are written here. But often, names of the alleged perpetrators and victims won't be. Instead, family members are represented by their ages inside a circle (for a girl) or a square (for a boy). A "V" designates the alleged victim, and a "P" the alleged perpetrator. A family tree, or genogram, is then completed with lines defining the biological parents, and the members of the household.
Next comes a critical piece of information: who reported the alleged abuse. Is he or she a mandatory reporter? If so, his or her statement is given the weight of credibility.
Is it a stranger? A neighbor? An ex-spouse? All of these are viewed with more coolness.
The reporter might claim that the kids are dirty, or that they hear the parents fighting, or that the children are eating too much fast food. Or, the reporter might claim that the parents are smoking meth.
At one time, just that latter accusation might have been enough to launch an investigation; after all, says Logan, "Meth is the big, bad word." However, she adds, under RED Teams, the question immediately becomes, "How does that person even know that?"
DHS can be quite a useful weapon for a vindictive neighbor or ex-spouse, after all. "People will use the department to their advantage. They'll tell their neighbors or ex-wives or ex-husbands, 'I'm going to call DHS on you,'" says Logan. "Imagine the stress for a parent when they get a card on their door from DHS."
This morning, for instance, the RED Team opts not to investigate a claim of abuse reported by a stepmother, noting that she and the child's biological mother had been trading accusations for years. As one caseworker puts it, "I think they're just mad at each other."
The most damaging claims a reporter can make allude to what the team terms "danger/harm." They might include evidence that the home is inarguably filthy, that the children aren't eating, or that the parents can be overheard fighting every night. These also include allegations of physical or sexual abuse.
Then there are complicating/risk factors, allegations that, while not immediately indicating clear danger, raise red flags. For instance, in one case, a reporter with first-hand knowledge states that nearly a dozen people live in the two-bedroom home. In another case, it is alleged that the adults in the house let the adolescent kids watch porn.
The children's ages factor in here, under a heading of child vulnerability. A vulnerable child is defined as any child 6 or younger, or handicapped or developmentally disabled. Any vulnerable child in the home is noted.
Finally, the team reviews agency/criminal history, looking closely at the criminal history of everyone in the home and previous referrals to DHS. In one case, a mother has a long arrest history, and now her teenage daughter has caught a felony charge. "Stellar parenting skills," a caseworker notes. In another, the team considers a number of previous referrals claiming neglect and abuse — all unfounded — but also the father's previous conviction for a sex offense.
Cultural considerations the team considers are the cultural beliefs and values of families that might appear abusive to an outsider. They also include specific conditions, such as military deployment, that might make it difficult to maintain a typical family life.
The team will also consider the safety and strengths present within the family. The RED Team model, says Ashleigh Rankin, state Child Protection Intake administrator, "builds a posture for child welfare that looks at all individuals and all families, keeping in mind that they have strengths. There was a time when we did not know this family. What were they doing well? And what has happened that has come to the point where we are now involved, and how can we build on those strengths to really help achieve safety?"
The team considers whether the family receives financial assistance or family and community resources. Medicaid and food stamps are considered positives, as they offer some financial security that can reduce stress.
If the family doesn't have these resources, the team asks, what resources might they qualify for?
"We've helped people get clothing. We've helped them get furniture. We've moved them," Logan says. "Parenting classes, helping people find employment, day care. ... Is it helping pay the rent or the utilities or something like that?"
This all represents a critical shift in thought, fundamental to RED Teams, says Krow. "Where we may have just looked at safety and risk in prior decision-making, now bringing in cultural considerations, bringing in strength and family engagement, we're able to balance and make better decisions."
As DHS notes, 73.5 percent of the referrals are neglect cases, many of which can simply stem from a lack of resources.
Here go the unknowns or unsubstantiated claims that, as a RED Team document puts it, "require follow up to determine accuracy and actual risk."
For instance, one reporter says that the alleged victim has said that an adult guardian is making "inappropriate" comments about her breasts. What does inappropriate mean, though? Are these sexual comments? The reporter didn't say that the girl alleged abuse. Maybe, a caseworker says, the adult is "telling her to get them covered up, and she thinks it's inappropriate."
Once a reporter's information has been completely vetted, the team decides whether there is enough legitimate information to assign a caseworker. If not, the case is logged into the system as a "No Follow-Up." If so, the team decides whether the caseworker should have five days, three days, or one day to make contact with the family.
As noted earlier, RED Teams typically call for investigations of about half the referrals they receive. Tiffany Beaubien, one of the caseworkers who performs investigations authorized by RED Teams, describes that process as beginning with a thorough review of the family's history.
Then comes a home visit. Beaubien interviews each alleged victim outside of the presence of the alleged perpetrator. She'll also interview everybody else in the home. She'll also interview parents who don't live in the home; school staff, if the child is school age; and medical professionals or law enforcement, if either were involved. The investigations are expected to be completed within 30 days.
If the investigation yields evidence of potential criminal behavior, DHS will refer the case to the proper authorities. From there, the case can last six months to a year. If the caseworker is concerned that it's not safe for the kids to stay in the home, the department can have them removed, a lengthy process that involves multiple DHS staff, the County Attorney's Office and the courts.
DHS will seek to place children with relatives, if possible, says Logan. The last resort is foster care.
"Kids need to be with parents as long as it's safe," Logan says. "We look at how we can keep this family together, if possible."
When it goes well, says Beaubien, families can come to appreciate the support from DHS. She proudly shows off a Christmas card she received from one such family. But each caseworker takes about 15 investigations each month, meaning that for every success, he or she knows there are plenty of other chances for disappointment, or occasionally, even devastation.
"We would be lying if we didn't say that there are caseworkers who go home at night and replay cases in their minds, and wonder, 'Did I make the right decision?'" says Beaubien. "It's constant. You do the best to do the most thorough investigation that you can."