Walk on the child's side 

Some worry that more state control of social services could increase costs, confusion in El Paso County

One mom failed a drug test, and seems to be selling her body to raise cash. A dad has developed a habit of trying to climb into bed with his teenage daughters.

And a 1-year-old lives with his father in a graffiti-scarred home where utilities have been turned off, leaving toilets clogged and food rotting in the fridge. The toddler also has what appears to be "carpet burn" on his forehead, so that report — like the other two — leaps out from a litany of possible disasters into the category of urgency.

"I think we should go," says one child protection supervisor, seated with eight colleagues for a Friday morning "triage" session at the El Paso County Department of Human Services. "Like, now."

With that, a caseworker is assigned to investigate, and the group continues poring over child abuse and neglect reports to weed out besmirched, or merely bad, parents from the truly dangerous. It's a daily process, at the heart of local child-protection efforts. But some leaders fear that a proposal to create a state child-abuse call center — or even to wrap human-service agencies into a massive state operation — could mess up the process and make children less safe.

County Commissioner Sallie Clark and other leaders met in late October with Gov. Bill Ritter to share their fears about those recommendations from his Child Welfare Action Committee. Ritter said he will seek more input before further action, but Clark remains worried.

"There's still a lot of angst and concern," Clark says.

Ritter formed the committee in 2008 after high-profile deaths of several children whose cases had been reported to local agencies, including that of Chandler Grafner, a 7-year-old who starved to death inside a Denver apartment. Of the committee's 29 recommendations, most were straightforward, such as consistent training for caseworkers and the state stepping in when agencies fail.

Larimer County Commissioner Kathay Rennels, who served on Ritter's committee, says a statewide call center could ensure that abuse and neglect reports get through from anywhere. Currently, she says, there's disparity in how calls are processed, and smaller counties might not have even a call-taker.

Locally, a team of four answers the child-abuse hotline (719/444-5700) during business hours, backed by four researchers who help track down police records, case histories and other details. A supervisor carries a pager to handle calls received after hours by an answering service.

The county has received more than 9,200 child abuse and neglect reports through October this year, exceeding Denver County, the next-busiest, by close to 2,000 reports. Caseworkers are assigned to investigate about half; county DHS director Rick Bengtsson says his workers use their knowledge of local families and resources to avoid responding when unnecessary.

Another big issue worrying Clark and fellow commissioners is cost. The county now pays about 16 percent of the DHS bill — about $9.2 million this year — with matching funds coming from the state and federal governments. That could hit 25 percent under the state "takeover" proposal.

All five commissioners signed a letter to Ritter opposing the call center and takeover plans, and Clark wants to be involved as the process grinds forward.

Democratic State Rep. Mike Merrifield, a likely candidate for county commissioner in 2010, says he hopes she is, adding: "Everyone agrees the status quo isn't working."


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