Concerns about county social services prompt examination by ombudsman

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The Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman of Colorado is looking into approximately 17 cases involving concerns expressed about Montezuma County’s Department of Social Services.

In a case briefing report, Stephanie Villafuerte, child protection ombudsman, wrote that on April 30, 2018, her office was contacted by a “community stakeholder” who alleged that practices in the county’s social services office were compromising child safety. The complainant said that following a series of personnel changes in the office, the county department had “failed to assess 28 child welfare cases – two of which involved allegations of sexual assault on children.”

Those concerns turned out to be exaggerated, according to the case briefing. It states that the ombudsman immediately reviewed the 28 cases and found that there were “only 11 cases that had been neglected by a former county department employee.” The county reportedly informed the ombudsman that a supervisor had reviewed the cases “and the children’s safety and well-being were not at risk.”

Also, the two cases involving sexual assaults had, in fact, been investigated by law enforcement.

However, according to the ombudsman’s report, the review “revealed violations in how the cases were handled by the county department.” And during the three months following the first inquiry, the ombudsman’s office was reportedly contacted by “multiple community members” about other concerns not related to the original case.

“These inquiries raised case-specific and systemic concerns about the county department’s practices,” the report states.

A total of 16 additional inquiries was received, according to the report, and on Aug. 1, the office opened a case and incorporated the 16 additional cases into it.

The case briefing lists the individual case numbers, the status of each, and the general nature of the concern involved, but does not give specifics, for reasons of privacy and confidentiality. However, most or all of the cases apparently involve situations that occurred under the tenure of the former social services director, Josiah Forkner, who resigned in April.

“A lot of these issues were raised before my time, with the former director,” said Gina Montoya, the current director, who was appointed in July 2018. The ombudsman’s office, she said, is “obligated to come do their own independent investigation if there are concerns. They have a right to look at those cases and ask those questions. We’re working with them and we’ll have to see what the outcome is.”

For some months, a number of local citizens have expressed concerns about the social services department in Montezuma County. There is even a Facebook page called “Montezuma Citizens for Improvements to Social Services.”

“Demand Change,” it says in large letters at the top of the page.

In answer to a message from the Four Corners Free Press, the unidentified manager of the page wrote: “The individuals who run this page have insight and concern with the neglect the children of this community have suffered at the hands of social services, county commissioners, and law enforcement alike. Currently there are 18 cases as of now, there were 17 cases, with the Onbudsmens office that are being investigated, that is just in this county, community and within a small timeframe. Imagine if that timeframe were to be broadened, how many cases, and what would be found? There is simply not enough being done, not enough being said, not enough comfort levels being taken away.”

The person did not give further specifics about the concerns.

Forkner had been in his position for about 3 1/2 years when he resigned abruptly last spring, not long after a March 5 executive session among the county commissioners which, according to the minutes, included “an issue in Social Services” as among the topics to be addressed.

On April 1, Lance McDaniel of Cortez, who is now a member of the Cortez City Council, spoke to the county commissioners during the public-comment portion of their meeting and called for counseling to be made available to social services employees because they “potentially have been forced to endure personal trauma during the tenure of the former director.”

McDaniel, who said he was submitting his concerns on behalf of a group of constituents, also called for more oversight for every division of Montezuma County’s services.

The Cortez Journal reported in April 2018 that the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office opened a “preliminary investigation” into Forkner at the time of his departure, but no charges were ever forthcoming. Then-County Administrator Melissa Brunner told the Journal at the time, “He’s been a good director.”

Three women who had dealings with social services, including one who said she had contacted the ombudsman’s office with her concerns, spoke to the Four Corners Free Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the cases involved.

Although the three of them had had different dealings with the department, all said that things had seemed to deteriorate after the retirement of longtime director Dennis Story in 2014. They said they believed that some decisions about personnel and about child welfare cases were made on the basis of personality, with people treated well if they were in favor with the administration and treated poorly if they were not.

Local attorney and Cortez City Council member Jill Carlson, who represents some clients in cases involving social services, came before the commissioners on Sept. 10 and asked them to reinstate a citizens’ review board for social services, and ultimately they did. They advertised for new members, interviewing the applicants in executive session, and ultimately appointed four people: Jerry Ayers, Jeremy Rosenbaugh, Elizabeth Tozer, and Kathryn Garlinghouse, according to Montoya.

She said anyone with concerns about child welfare cases being handled by the county social services department can go to the review panel or contact her directly.

Montoya previously worked for 10 years in Boulder County as a child protection caseworker and in Adams County as a clinical supervisor. She said she has never heard of such a cluster of cases coming to the ombudsman’s office concerning any single county.

“I have not heard of this before in terms of this many complaints,” she said. “This is new to me too.”

She said she wants the public to know that there is a 13-member Child Protection Team that reviews all decisions made by caseworkers in child welfare cases, making it very difficult for decisions to be made arbitrarily.

“We don’t work in a bubble,” she said. “We have referrals, we go out and do our assessments, and review those with the Child Protection Team. The professionals on that team go over those referrals with us and tell us what we may have missed. It’s not like the caseworker makes the decisions herself.”

The Child Protection Team includes representatives from the probation office, Piñon Project, Re-1 School District, Axis Health, Southwest Memorial Hospital, sheriff ’s office, district attorney’s office, and more, she said.

“When I talk to a layperson, they have no idea that we have to review our cases,” Montoya said. “It’s not just something we do by ourselves. Hopefully we get a better assessment when we have a team working on the cases. They may find things that we cannot see. They’re very objective.

“It’s heartbreaking to me to hear of this coming out in the newspaper or on Facebook because you often get just one side of the story.

“People don’t hear about the good things we do, like when we reunite a family.”

Montoya said working on child welfare cases involving potential abuse and neglect is difficult and sometimes even dangerous. One of her staff members was recently physically assaulted in the course of the job, she said.

“I would take a look at the positives as well,” she said of the department. “I say, don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution.”

Jordan Steffen, deputy ombudsman with the state ombudsman’s office, declined to comment on whether the 17 or so cases in Montezuma County was an unusual number. She said the ombudsman’s office received a total of 611 contacts during the last fiscal year, 2017-18, which was its busiest yet. Those came from around the state, and clearly most of the calls were from more populated areas.

“We call them ‘contacts’ because most often they involve a concern,” she said. “Sometimes they involve people with questions, or citizens looking for help navigating the system.”

The majority of the office’s contacts involve “assists,” she said. “Maybe someone has an open case with a county and is struggling to understand the procedure or having a complaint. We do a review of third-party records and see if there are concerns.”

The next level of activity is an actual investigation, she said. Investigations typically involve a “more systemic look into an issue and an agency as a whole – a broader issue than an individual case involving one specific family or child.” Because of confidentiality rules, Steffen could not discuss specifics of the various Montezuma County cases. However, the ombudsman’s website gives general information about what type of concern each represents.

All of them fall into one of three categories: sufficiency of response, service delivery, or assessment of needed services.

Steffen explained that the categories are very broad. “Assessment of needed services,” she said, “might be how that agency engaged with a family and a child and determined the services the child needed.”

Sufficiency of response, she said, involves “examining when an entity becomes involved with a family and what was the response – was it enough? Was it proper?”

Service delivery involves the question of whether services are getting to families in an appropriate, timely and efficient manner, she said.

Steffen said although obviously there is a higher number of contacts coming from the state’s metro areas, the gap between rural and metro contacts is closing as the office does more outreach in rural areas.

The cluster of cases in Montezuma County, she said, could theoretically be due to people spreading the word about the office among themselves, although she did not know if that was the situation.

The ombudsman’s office has no enforcement authority, but if after examining a case or complaint the office believes there may have been a violation of state law or rules, they will issue letters of compliance concern. These are not an actual determination that laws were violated or rules weren’t followed, she said.

A copy is sent to the agency being looked into, and a response is requested. The letter and response are then sent to the state Department of Human Services, which reviews them and decides whether any necessary action should happen.

If the office does open an investigation, it makes recommendations as well, Steffen said.

The case briefing regarding the Montezuma County concerns says since receiving the first inquiry on April 30 of last year, the ombudsman’s office has visited the county twice and spent more than 40 hours interviewing dozens of community members, including social services staff, local law enforcement, parents, foster parents and others. The office has also done an in-depth review of the 16 individual cases “as well as additional child welfare cases the CPO [Child Protection Ombudsman] found to be pertinent to its understanding of the county department’s practices and community relationships,” the report states. The office also consulted with the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Now, the office needs more time to draft “more than a dozen final documents,” the report says.

“Such documents include letters outlining identified compliance concerns and a final investigation report discussing systemic findings and recommendations,” it says.

The final documents will be published on the website.

The report says the cases are to be wrapped up by April 29 of this year.

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From February 2019.