The bill aims to solve the problem of young people running away from foster care

Colorado is expected to create new standards for residential centers that house foster children and examine how best to prevent children from running away from such centers as part of a new legislative proposal.

The bill follows scrutiny of 24/7 residential centers, including a joint Colorado Sun/9News investigation that found children and teens are running away daily and two boys who ran away fleeing from different facilities were hit by cars and killed.

Legislation by Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, would require the state to partner with a university to build the new quality assurance system. And that would require a public online dashboard where parents and others could see whether the centers are safe and improving children’s mental health.

Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks about mental health parity to an audience at The Colorado Sun’s Big Ideas 2020 forum at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus on January 14, 2020. ( Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Additionally, the state should establish a task force of experts, former youth and child welfare officials to examine why children are running away and how to prevent them from fleeing residential care. . The bill proposes to name the panel after Timmy Montoya-Kloepfel, who was 12 when he ran away from the Tennyson Center for Children in Denver in June 2020 and died after being hit by a Chevy Tahoe.

Where is our sense of urgency for children with serious behavioral health issues who are in an isolated, 24/7 facility?

Stéphanie Villafuerte, Child Protection Mediator

The legislation was crafted by a team of child advocates, including Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte, who has been seeking changes to residential facilities since 2019, when she called for a public website similar to the state day care website which would offer outcome data. .

“Where is our sense of urgency for children with serious behavioral health issues who are in an isolated, 24/7 facility?” she said in an interview on Friday, after the legislation was tabled. “We got alerts – between citizens calling our office and people responding to media stories – and three years later we still haven’t designed a system that would show us what’s going on in those facilities.

“I think that’s unacceptable. I am exhausted by systems that put the needs of adults, our bureaucracies, our budgets and everything before the needs of children. And this is one of those problems.

Villafuerte studied a new quality assurance system for residential youth centers in Florida, which the state created in partnership with child protection experts from Florida State University. The ombudsman said she has already consulted with social scientists from the University of Denver and Colorado State University.

The requirement that the state partner with an institution of higher learning means that the state’s division of child welfare, within the Colorado Department of Human Services, would not have the responsibility exclusive design of the new rating system. It’s another sign of growing frustration between the ombudsman’s office and the State Department, which launched a task force to address runaway issues after The Sun/9News investigation, but doesn’t sought no major policy change.

Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 24, 2020 in Denver. (Photo by Kathryn Scott)

News agencies found that in three years, Denver police had been called to the Tennyson Center for Children 938 times, a third of the time because a child had run away. Denver police were called to Mount Saint Vincent approximately twice a week throughout 2019 and 2020, so often that the police department told the residential center it was not a “department of taxi” to bring back runaway children.

Similar to Timmy, 15-year-old Andrew Potter was killed in 2018 after fleeing Devereux Cleo Wallace in Westminster. He died after being hit by a suspected drunk driver on Wadsworth Parkway.

The state’s child welfare division keeps track of the number of adoptive children who run away from foster homes and residential centers, but not many other details about those cases.

“When they run, this state has no consistency on how we locate them, when we bring them back, what treatment or assessments they should receive,” Villafuerte said. “And at this point, I can’t even tell you the exact number of young people in our state who have fled away from home placements, foster homes, residential treatment centers, how long they’ve been gone , when they returned and what happened to them while they were on the run.

The task force, which would include young people who have spent time in residential facilities, would consider ideas to prevent children from running away and to prevent children from getting hurt on the streets. For example, residential centers could ensure that children with a history of running away have phone numbers to call for help. Additionally, the state could implement a standard protocol for children who have returned from a runaway to ensure they receive appropriate mental health treatment. The group could also look at current state regulations that restrict when staff can physically restrain a child.

Colorado Sun/9News has partnered with a joint series examining residential treatment centers where Colorado homes serve youth and children with severe behavioral issues.

The scrutiny of residential centers comes as many centers have closed in Colorado. Since 2007, 44 facilities have closed, a loss of 2,200 therapy beds, according to the Colorado Association of Child and Family Agencies. The closures follow a nationwide call by child advocates and federal officials for more children to live in foster homes or with parents, rather than in institutions.

But now Colorado has a severe shortage of options for children with the most acute behavioral health issues, meaning children are being sent out of state for treatment, a situation the state ombudsman Child Protection called it “unacceptable.”

“In extraordinary circumstances, these facilities are needed,” Villafuerte said. “They are important for a very small segment of our young people to get the care they need.”

The proposal says the new quality assurance system would be in place by July 2026, with a preliminary report due next year.

The bill is the latest from Michaelson Jenet to tackle the crisis in children’s mental health. Another bill she introduced this session would allow county child welfare divisions to enter into agreements with local agencies that could take in children who have been picked up by law enforcement but cannot not go home. This bill arose after counties said children slept in county buildings and waited for hours in the back of police cruisers when they had no family to house them or wasn’t sure about taking them home.

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