Posted by: sanyaandersenvie | January 19, 2010

Denver Post: Compromise bill for independent child advocate office gets high-level backing

Compromise bill for independent child advocate office gets high-level backing
By Colleen O’Connor
The Denver Post

A battle over whether an advocacy agency to improve child protection in Colorado should be independent or housed within a department it oversees may lead to a compromise: contract the work out to a nonprofit organization.

State Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, has redrafted a bill to establish the state Office of Child Advocate to include the compromise language, with the approval of Gov. Bill Ritter and Karen Beye, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services.

“It’s huge,” said Newell about getting a buy-in from the governor and the Department of Human Services; both had argued for the ombudsman to be part of the department rather than independent.

The 64 counties that deliver child welfare services have not yet weighed in.

About 30 states have children’s advocate offices that oversee child-protective services. About half are located within the departments that they oversee, and about half are independent and autonomous.

A child-advocacy office was one of 29 recommendations made last year by the Governor’s Child Welfare Action Committee, created in 2007, after 13 abuse-related deaths of children who were in protective services, including Chandler Grafner, 7, who starved to death.

Rhode Island is considered a model for children’s ombudsman offices by the American Bar Association. Like Colorado, it started its office at a tough time, after a series of deaths among kids in state care.

“If you really want to be successful, it is imperative that you carve out its independence from the agencies that it may have an opportunity to bring complaints against,” said Jametta Alston, the child advocate for Rhode Island.

But Ritter and Beye wanted the office to be part of the state agency.

“In our view, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put the (office) in a department that doesn’t have authority to make changes in policy or programs,” agency spokeswoman Liz McDonough said.

But child advocates attacked this plan at a contentious meeting held recently.

“The powerful, really successful offices are really far away from Human Services. They have nothing to do with them,” said Karen Lausa of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, who has spent 18 months researching independent children’s advocacy offices across the United States and Canada.

Impartial ombudsmen, she says, have a variety of backgrounds, ranging from law to social services.

“It’s not about having relationships with all these people in Human Services,” she said. “In fact, I think that’s a hindrance.”

After that divisive meeting in December, Newell went back to Ritter and Beye.

“I told them, ‘Look, we have to do this, we have to have more independence,’ ” she said. “They do realize they need to make compromises.”

The compromise bill will be presented to stakeholders next week. It calls for an 11-member panel — seven of whom would be named by the governor — to review proposals to provide the child-advocacy oversight.

The nonprofit would have a two- to three- year contract, funded by gifts, grants and donations.

Independent children’s advocacy offices are more powerful, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks these offices.

It says that when the office is located within the state division of child welfare, it generally functions to assist the public with questions and complaints about state agencies.

By comparison, independent offices offer more comprehensive services. Among other things, they can subpoena records and information, sue an agency on behalf of a child, and initiate investigations of agencies and make public reports that might result in system reform.

Newell cautions that the draft bill is just the beginning of a long process of getting the bill passed, a road lawmakers have gone down before, unsuccessfully.

“This is not a new fight,” she said. “But what I can say is that this is the right fight, at the right time, and it absolutely has to happen now.”

Colleen O’Connor: 303-954-1083 or
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