Fewer kids are living in foster care

Dozens fewer children are currently in foster care in Mesa County than in the last couple of years, a change social workers say is the product of a broad effort to give kids the stability that comes with keeping them with their parents or moving them into an adoptive home.

As of July, the most recent month for which data are available, 199 children were in out-of-home care in the county, 57 fewer than the same time last year. An average of 206 children have been in foster care so far this year, a 21 percent drop from 2010 and 18 percent fewer than in 2009.

Tracey Garchar, executive director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services, said human-service agencies and nonprofit organizations that work with disadvantaged children are pushing to prevent kids from bouncing around foster homes, and they are seeking permanent places for them to grow up. The county and the state of Colorado share a goal of reducing out-of-home placements by 50 percent by 2020.

“The significance is children actually have a family that is going to love and care for them, to allow them to grow up normally,” Garchar said. “It is recognizing kids should not be growing up in institutions or growing up in places where they don’t have a chance to develop values or family relationships.”

To keep or reunite more children with their biological parents or find an adoptive home for them, he said, local child welfare caseworkers more quickly identify children who may be at risk for abuse or neglect and work with their families to keep them from entering the system.

For example, Garchar said, caseworkers who receive a referral and visit a home but don’t observe any evidence of abuse will meet with the family. They’ll advise them about scenarios that could lead to abuse, ask about problems they may be having and offer resources such as parenting classes.

“If the situation is not that severe and we cannot legally intervene, we are taking extra steps to figure out what’s going on and if we can help them,” he said.

Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland, a former child-welfare caseworker, said employees often used to investigate a call and turn around and leave if there was not enough evidence for the Department of Human Services to present a legal case to a judge. Now, she said, caseworkers try to support families and give them tools to parent safely in order to prevent abuse. That places caseworkers in a less adversarial role and reduces the perception that the county is simply out looking under every rock.

In addition to trying to keep children out of foster care, officials are examining kids who are in the system now and determining whether there are things they could have done to prevent those kids from being removed from their home.

Critics say the emphasis to keep children with their parents can go too far and result in abuse. Garchar acknowledges while that’s possible, the department’s risk assessments are designed to avoid those situations.

“Is there still a risk that something could happen? The answer is yes,” he said. “I think it’s a very calculated risk we do. It’s not just arbitrary.”

Statistics bear out the department’s prevention work. Through the first seven months of this year, caseworkers assessed 2,025 children, a 39 percent increase over the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the reduction in out-of-home placements has translated into a drop in county taxpayer costs.

At this time last year, the department was projecting a year-end $1.6 million deficit in its child-welfare budget. This year, the department could have a balanced budget, Rowland said.

“I think they will have a model they can use nationwide to protect children and keep costs down at the same time,” she said.


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