(COLORADO SPRINGS) — A new volunteer task force is investigating Colorado’s child welfare system. The group is made up of 32 experts on child abuse and is trying to fix long-standing issues they say plagued the state’s child welfare system for years.

The office of the Child Protection Ombudsman has identified problems with racial inequality, a shortage of case workers, and kids who are the subject of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline, but never get help. The group is independent from state and county agencies and has until January 2024 to submit their report to lawmakers with recommended changes to the state’s child welfare system.

The group plans to meet 13 times before their deadline. They are tasked with considering how the state’s mandatory reporting law could be changed to make the process more effective, clear, and equitable.

“If I could wave a magic wand, victim advocates would not be mandatory reporters,” said Jennifer Eyl, Executive Director of Project Safeguard.

Colorado law requires certain people to report injuries or abuse of children, elders, or crime victims to law enforcement or human services, but the law currently does not require mandatory reporters to receive any training.

“We are bound by this obligation of mandatory reporting, we know it does harm, we know it discourages people coming to us,” Eyl explained.

The group believes mandatory reporting laws are impacting communities of color. They say training for mandatory reporters can make the process more streamlined by increasing the time reports are made and identifying how child abuse needs to be reported.

“When we say to people ‘hey, by the way the system isn’t right,’ we need to also say, ‘you know what is, advocacy and support,” said Roshan Kalantar, Executive Director of Violence Free Colorado.

El Paso County Department of Human Services is one of the busiest in the state, and as such, experiences many of the same challenges faced by departments across Colorado. El Paso County continues to engage and collaborate locally and statewide to work through challenges and find sustainable options that are informed, to meet the need of children and families. 

According to 2019 Kids Count data, the under 18 population for El Paso County is 173,728. Through July 2023, El Paso County received 13,267 Hotline calls, 10,178 referrals and 3,394 assessments.

So far in 2023, the cumulative number of legally involved cases in El Paso County has fluctuated between 655 and 675. The variation in these numbers from hotline, to assessments, to legally involved cases indicate the attention to using screening and decision-making frameworks, to include statute criteria, to determine the level of support, the level of intervention and the level of involvement with families. 

“This highlights how important it is for us to continue to partner and collaborate with community partners, faith-based agencies, families’ natural supports and providers of therapeutic services in order to meet the challenge of supporting families at the appropriate level, and at the right time,” Kristina Lodice, El Paso County Department of Human Services said.

On average for each month in 2023 thus far, 559 children are in out-of-home placements. However, that number includes kin placements, such as when children are placed with relatives.

“We have greatly increased our practice of finding kin or kin-like supports for children and youth when safety necessitates that out of home placement is needed. We continue to safely strive that removal from parent(s) is the last resort,” Lodice said.

The task force believes removing victim advocates as mandatory reporters would help prevent child abuse or neglect in the future. Nine states have a similar model.

“Many states already have this carved out and they haven’t seen dramatic increases in domestic and in child abuse or child deaths or anything, it has supported families,” Kalantar said.

The new Colorado task force is also investigating a loophole that exempts clergy members in our state from reporting suspected child abuse. Specifically, it exempts them from reporting what they learn in confidential communications as deemed by the church. The task force will report their findings in 2024.