SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Mesa County DHS

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) – Over the last ten years, 17 kids in Mesa County died from child abuse. Six of those children were in the system of the Mesa County Department of Human Services before they died. Five had been previously referred to DHS and were either screened out and never investigated, or were investigated but the case was closed.

DHS had an open investigation on the sixth child, Owen Reak, when he died on April 11, 2012 from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Owen’s mother’s then-boyfriend, Justin Keel, was sentenced in December to 36 years in prison for Owen’s death.

Owen’s grandmother, Beth Feely, said Owen’s death could have been prevented if DHS had done more to prevent his death. She and her husband made eight calls to Owen’s assigned caseworker the week before Owen died and said none of those calls were returned.

“It's incredibly frustrating because we feel like his death could've been avoided had they done something to respond to us because we were deeply concerned about his safety,” Feely said.

Most likely, Owen wasn’t the only child his caseworker was responsible for.

According to a report from Colorado Department of Human Services, Mesa County DHS caseworkers had more new assessments per worker per month during 2011-2012 than any of the other ten largest counties. On average, each caseworker was assigned 14.9 new assessments every month.

Kelly Stortz, a Mesa County DHS caseworker for nine years, said before she quit her job in October 2011, her caseload became far more than she could manage.

“I could no longer work there due to my ethics and beliefs and my feeling that I was put into a position to start harming families instead of helping families,” Stortz said.

Stortz said at the time she quit, she had 34 open cases. The Child Welfare League of America recommends caseworkers, at any given time, have no more than 12 open cases.

“It wasn’t about, ‘Did I spend time with the family, did I make a difference for that family?’ It was about, ‘These are the numbers we have to generate; your performance is based solely on these numbers,’” she said.

On average, Mesa County caseworkers had 13.5 open cases at a time, according to Colorado Department of Human Services.

Jill Calvert, Child Welfare Division Director for Mesa County DHS, said workers’ caseload is “manageable” between 11 and 13 cases.

“It’s hard work, but that’s a pretty manageable number,” Calvert said.

According to Stortz though, that number is just that: a number. It does not indicate workers’ true workload, she said.

“We twist numbers or assign [cases] to different people, and we play games with the numbers,” she said. “Society has a belief we’re actually helping familiesm and we’re not. It’s an illusion.”

Stortz said at the time she left her job, she was working 50 hours a week at the office, then would go home and do more work.

Mesa County DHS gets reviewed on a six-month basis from the Administrative Review Division of Colorado Department of Human Services. As part of the 2012 Screen Out Review, state reviewers analyzed a random sample of 1,542 referrals made to Mesa County DHS that caseworkers screened out.

The report found in 13.2 percent of the screened-out referrals, caseworkers did not properly record all children and adults who were living in the home referred. The report also found in 54.7 percent of the screened-out referrals, caseworkers did not document all case or referral history for children or family members identified in the referral.

For 91 percent of the referrals screened out by caseworkers, it wasn’t the first time at least one person identified in the report had been referred. Eighty-nine percent of the referrals reviewed had prior investigation or assessment history, and 43 percent had prior case history, but were screened out.

“The system is set up to protect children, but when there’s chaos and overworked and undertrained workers and management is failing and the system is failing, it actually harms children,” Stortz said.

In 2012, Mesa County DHS received 3,277 unduplicated child welfare referrals and made assessments on 1,579 of those referrals.

Mesa County has 39 senior case managers in Child Welfare whose primary responsibility is to handle the thousands of referrals and assessments.

When asked if her caseworkers were overwhelmed, Calvert said, “It’s an overwhelming job but it’s what the job is across the nation; it is what it is.”

Stortz, however, disagreed. She said her decision to leave DHS was heart wrenching, but one she needed to make because she feared everyday what could happen.

“My final decision was I was not going to be the caseworker on duty when another child died,” she said. “It’s not the job that I would never do again. I would not do it here.”

For the family of Owen Reak, the issue of overwhelmed caseworkers hits close to home.

“[The caseworker] knew we had called her the seven days prior to Owen's death and tried to reach her and tried to get something done on Owen's behalf to ensure his safety and it wasn't done,” Feely said. “Owen should not have died. He shouldn’t have.”

Colorado DHS conducted a Child Fatality Review on Owen’s case. According to the state website, the Child Fatality Review Team conducts an in-depth case review on all incidents of serious child abuse or neglect, near fatalities or fatalities when a child or family had previous involvement with a county DHS agency that was directly related to the incident, and when the previous involvement with the county DHS agency occurred within two years prior to the incident.

The review recognizes the family made three calls to the caseworker on April 10, 2012—the day before Owen died—but does not acknowledge any of the other previous calls indicated in Feely’s phone records.

The Child Fatality Review on Owen’s case indicated Mesa County DHS did not violate any state statutes or rules, and no changes in systems, practice, policy, rule or statue were needed.

Mesa County Department of Human Services Director Tracey Garchar said the department did everything they could have to prevented Owen’s death.

“We have looked at every single child fatality that’s occurred because of abuse or neglect that’s occurred in the last two years, and there’s absolutely nothing we could’ve done to have prevented that death,” he said.

However, Feely said given the communication problems she faced with the department, something does need to change.

“I just don’t want another Owen to die needlessly because the system didn’t work,” Feely said.

Garchar said “the system” is everything but the cause of children dying. The real fault, he said, lies within the community.

“Until this community takes this as serious as we do and they actually care and they provide us timely, accurate information and they’re not afraid to speak the truth about what they see, we will never ever get ahead of this,” he said.

Below are names and information on all of the children who died from child abuse in Mesa County between 2003 and 2012, and what involvement DHS had with the child, if any. Names and information for three children who died in 2012 have not been announced by Colorado DHS.

If you suspect child abuse or neglect may be occurring, call the 24-hour Child Protection Hotline at 970-242-1211. Your information is confidential.

According to Mesa County DHS, be prepared to give any information you know about the persons or incident you are reporting. Information you may be asked include:
• The name, address, age, sex, and race of the child
• The name(s) and address(es) of the person(s) responsible for the suspected abuse or neglect
• The nature and extent of the child’s injuries
• Any evidence of previous cases of known or suspected abuse or neglect of the child or the child’s siblings
• The family composition, including any siblings
• The name, address and/or contact phone number, and occupation of the person making the report
• Relation of the person making report to the child and/or how information was obtained
• Any action taken by the reporting source
• Any other information reporting person feels is important.

Click the link above for information including what constitutes child abuse or neglect, what happens during the investigation process and reasons a referral may not be assigned for investigation.

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