Colorado’s free-falling economy has left the state’s most vulnerable kids without a safety net. And since reports of child abuse tend to spike during rough economic times, things could go from bad to worse for the state’s needy children.
Last year Colorado earned the gloomy distinction of seeing the nation’s largest increase in children living in poverty. According to a 2008 study published by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, an advocacy organization, the number of poor children in the state jumped by 73 percent between 2000 and 2006. With 180,000 children in poverty (or 15.7 percent of the population), Colorado still does slightly better than the rest of the nation. But the picture looks increasingly grim.
“We have a seen an increasing trend of kids who are below the poverty level. And that was before the economic downturn,” says Megan Ferland, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
“There is a whole host of factors to account for this,” she went on. “Part of it is that we have high drop out rates. We don’t do a good job of graduating our kids from high school. It is hard to make a decent living and care for your family when you don’t have your high school diploma. And we have a decreasing number of jobs that pay a decent living for lower-skilled workers.”
Families in poverty typically have a difficult time meeting their children’s needs. And this tension —deepened by the inability to pay for clothing or food or childcare — may lead to abuse. In fact, says Ferland, children in poverty are nearly seven times more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect.
“In tough economic times there is more stress on the family and a higher instance of substance abuse,” says Becky Miller Updike, director of strategic initiatives at Denver’s Tennyson Center for Children, a treatment home for abused kids. “Those are the drivers. Mom and Dad are stressed out, and it trickles down to the kids. There are more neglect issues. Resources are stretched.”
Though the risk of child abuse increases during difficult times, the Denver Department of Human Services has not seen an uptick in abuse or neglect referrals in the past three years.
According to data prepared for The Colorado Independent, the department received 10,575 referrals — calls to the child abuse hot line — in 2006, compared to 11,349 referrals in 2007 and 11,103 referrals in 2008. People typically call the hot line to report suspected abuse or neglect. But some individuals call the hot line for advice on how to deal with out-of-control children.
Toni Rozanski, director of child welfare services with the Department of Human Services, says that the slight increase in referrals between 2007 and 2008 has little to do with the faltering economy.
“I wouldn’t attribute that growth to poverty,” she says. “There are many things that impact our referrals.”
Rozanski says that her department has no plans to change policy during the difficult economic period.
“We wouldn’t be watching [for abuse] just because of the economy,” she says. “We are set up to respond to any need that arises.”
Though Denver’s data does not show an increase in abuse, the state’s child abuse rates have slowly crept up in recent years. According to the Colorado Children’s Campaign study, rates of child mistreatment increased by 43 percent between 2000 and 2006. In 2006, 10,086 children were abused or neglected and 24 of them died. In 2007, 13 children died.
One high-profile case in Denver last year was that of Chandler Grafner, the 7-year-old boy whose parents were convicted of starving him to death. The Denver Department of Human Services was aware of the case but did not act on a report that he had been removed from school the month before he died.
The boy’s death — and other similar cases– prompted Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter last year to create the Child Welfare Action Group, a coalition of elected officials and advocates dedicated to examining the state’s child welfare system.
The group has recommended more than a dozen changes to the current system, but just a single item will be proposed before the state Legislature this session. That legislation, sponsored by freshman Sen. Linda Newell, a Democrat from Arapahoe County, would mandate caseworkers across the state to be trained in child welfare. But, says Newell, the bill has an uphill battle since the Legislature is currently scrambling to cut $600 million from its overburdened budget.
“The question is, can we do it without a fiscal note? The answer is no,” says Newell, adding that the price tag could amount to $1.6 million. “But we have to find those dollars somewhere.”
Newell says that the price of ignoring child welfare this year could be devastating.
“The state liability exposure is much higher,” she says. “The cost of not doing it is potentially another death, potentially a lawsuit against the caseworker or the department for lack of oversight. If you are pro-family, then you need to look out for the well-being of the state’s families. But the other concern is that the state is wide open in terms of a lawsuit.”
Even so, the state Legislature may end up cutting into existing child welfare programs. According to Senate President Peter Groff, a Democrat from Denver with a long record of backing children’s initiatives, the Legislature may end up scaling back the state’s full day kindergarten program, which was expanded last year to accommodate at-risk youth.
“I think the expansion of programs right now is not something that we can begin to look at unless there are federal dollars attached to them,” says Groff. “But generally those dollars are one-time dollars. If we create a new program, we will have to figure out how to do that ongoing.”
Groff says that whittling away at children’s programs could have long-term consequences.
“The fear is that we are shortchanging our responsibility, which is to give kids the most open and active opportunities to take advantage of their God-given gifts,” he says.
“The long-term impact on the state is that young people are not prepared for the global economy, and they may turn to other ways to handle life’s challenges.”
The short-term impact, on the other hand, may be more battered and neglected kids.