Guest Post: We are listening: Responding to recent child abuse and neglect data

"Family," by ryanhsuh31, via Flickr:Creative Commons

Calls to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline rose for the fourth consecutive year last year.

In 2018, an astonishing 221,969 calls were made to the hotline (1-844-CO-4-KIDS or 1-844-264-5437), breaking the record of calls set just one year ago. The data itself is illuminating, and as is often true with data sets, they contain good news but also mirror some troubling national trends. They also show us there are real opportunities to proactively intervene in cases before they escalate, with less expensive, yet highly effective treatment and care.

The Good News

Let’s start by thanking the dedicated staff and leaders at the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) whose investment in and management of the hotline has proven, yet again, how vital it is for Coloradans to have a place where children, parents, neighbors, teachers and other community members can anonymously call, be heard and be supported when abuse or neglect is suspected. Hotline use continues to increase because people across the state see the hotline as a valuable community service. Hotline sophistication is growing as well, with increasing capacity to filter out “crank calls” and identify signs that a family member may be at risk of harm when no abuse or neglect is apparent. At its best, people seek out people when they are in crisis, and CDHS has created a safe, reliable place to be heard. This is remarkable, rare and deserves applause.

Moreover, the data suggests that more than 12,000 families are receiving social services support to prevent potential abuse and neglect in their homes and communities. This is a brave step by families in a country where admitting you need help remains uncommon and too often leads to isolation, stigmatization and shame. We are witnessing real parental courage that is being embraced by our county human services departments. This proactive work saves lives, keeps families together, unleashes innovative county-led prevention programs to stem the flow of families into more costly interventions, and saves the state and all its citizens money.

Troubling Trends

The hotline also creates new opportunities for abuse and neglect to be flagged, which is important as we pull back the curtain on practices that have historically been too easy to hide. That said, the trends (which are partially explained by increased awareness of the hotline) continue to show that abuse and neglect are far too prevalent in our state. While this may not surprise people, it should alarm them. Caseworkers assessed the safety and well-being of more than 57,000 children in 2018 (up from 55,600 in 2017), and confirmed that over 13,000 children had experienced abuse or neglect. In its first three years, caseworkers identified more than 47,800 children and teenagers who had been neglected or abused, thanks to the hotline.

That is a lot of pain in our state and puts enormous strain on families, communities and human services!

That said, Colorado could start to stem the trend of children experiencing maltreatment if it takes the opportunity to fully tap into that data.

The Opportunity

The opportunity for real change lies in aggressively tackling support for families of the children who do not meet the rather high bar of abuse and neglect that triggers an intervention (intensive in-home services or removal from the home).

The Tennyson Center For Children, founded in 1904, has historically been a service provider that partners with counties to help those children and families whose experiences with trauma are real, deep and embedded. We are late-stage service providers working daily with hundreds of brave children and families processing their trauma while trying to stabilize, heal and reintegrate them into their communities.

Many children are in terrible situations; abuse and neglect are profound, and dramatic action – like removal from homes – is required. But truthfully, many children who come to Tennyson are stories of missed opportunities where thoughtful, earlier interventions would have helped struggling families in ways that would have prevented their eventual descent into crisis.

For example, there are children on our campus who could still be with their parents or with an aunt or uncle if early-stage warning signs around their increased school truancy, or their parents’ isolation or growing substance abuse had triggered a community-based response. Importantly, people who are struggling should be able to get help well before the Department of Human Services needs to step in. One young child was with us because his mother was not supported when she was a child, and her spiral into crisis, which was not inevitable, occurred because we all turned away.

Tennyson is taking this insight seriously, adding to our exceptional late-stage services by adding upstream interventions and forging new alliances to stem the flow of children to residential facilities like ours. Increasing work on multi-generational trauma, innovative parental strengthening programs, unlocking insights from neuroscience, and support for newborn-to-3-year-olds (often led by nurses) are better for children, families, communities and Colorado as a whole.

Today, action and funding are triggered only when abuse and neglect reach levels of alarm that make us all shudder. Too commonly, we miss opportunities to proactively intervene in cases before they escalate, with less expensive, yet highly effective treatments and care such as those mentioned above. Sadly, families must tumble into deep crisis to spark real action, and funding lines only respond when it is clear that the child or family is on the edge. Funding and programming must move upstream, and hotline data and assessments illuminate this possibility for earlier, more thoughtful interventions.

Such interventions that focus directly on attacking child abuse and neglect earlier are happening across Colorado. Parental support work, early childhood development interventions and county-led, multi-agency alliances that tackle abuse and neglect earlier and more holistically are blooming in Denver, Douglas, Boulder and El Paso counties, to name a few.

Denver has been developing some of the most thoughtful parental support programs around, programs that are designed to help clients start where they are now – again targeted at prevention and earlier interventions – while our Douglas County partnership is starting to unlock the immense potential of faith-based communities to support families well before child welfare agencies are needed.

Tennyson is honored to partner with leaders who see possibilities to move earlier and stem the continuing flood of children and families into crisis.

Such shifts are emerging, in part, because CDHS, county departments of human services and community partners have illuminated pathways to a better world, showing that we are listening and acting. And for that we should all be thankful.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page