A state audit cites several areas of concern over the handling of cases within the state’s child welfare system.
The 260-page report lays out dozens of recommended fixes to “deficiencies” that were found in samplings of cases that were …
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The 260-page report lays out dozens of recommended fixes to “deficiencies” that were found in samplings of cases that were screened by the Department of Human Services during the 2013 fiscal year.
The findings included problems with the screening process of potential child abuse cases as well as a lack of proper state supervision over child welfare services handled by individual counties.
“The audit findings collectively suggest a need for the department to improve its supervision of the child welfare system to promote strong and consistent practices by the counties to help protect children,” reads the report, which was authored by the State Auditor’s Office.
However, DHS Executive Director Reggie Bicha strongly pushed back against some areas of the report during a Nov. 12 legislative committee hearing.
“Child welfare practice is extremely complex,” he told the panel.
The report gathers information from samplings of the 70,400 reported cases of abuse and neglect that were screened by the department in 2013.
The audit finds that in some cases, “it was unclear” whether counties followed state-mandated rules when determining whether cases warrant further investigation by the department.
Case workers’ timeliness of initial contact with families also was a concern. In a small number of cases sampled, the audit found that “caseworkers did not interview or observe children involved in child welfare referrals within county-assigned response times.”
Other samples showed some risk assessment documents had incorrect information about families and their histories, while other reports failed to identify child safety issues.
Bicha told lawmakers that his department agrees with many of the recommendations spelled out in the audit and that many of the findings dealt with issues the agency had already been addressing.
Bicha also stressed that caseworkers do their best to assess each situation properly and said that mandating “one-size fits all” regulations does a disservice to the public and to each individual child’s needs.
Bicha particularly took issue with concerns that counties responded in contradictory or unreliable ways to auditors’ findings that state guidelines were not being followed properly.
“Having a difference of opinion, rethinking initial conclusions, or debating interpretation of law, policy and practice in a world of very limited resources should not be grounds for questioning the department’s testimonial evidence or validity or our reliability,” Bicha said.
The department has put in place a handful of reforms over the last couple of years after news reports found troubling handlings of cases involving children who died due to abuse and neglect.
Among the reforms set to launch in January will be the creation of a statewide child abuse and neglect hotline that was approved by the Legislature in 2013.
The audit was requested by lawmakers, including Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who is known to craft legislation focused on the protection of children.
Newell said through an emailed statement that the report “reaffirms how delicate and complex the child protection system is.”
Newell said she will follow up on the findings and that additional legislation may be taken up when lawmakers reconvene in January.
“We need to continue to work with the state department and counties on improving the system,” she said.
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