Granting his wish to be a regular kid: Child welfare reform in Colorado offers hope to a teenager with ambition

Austin Strauser is scarfing down his second sandwich. Sporting a stripe-pattern hoodie that has earphones for drawstrings, he looks like a typical 13-year-old boy about to experience a major growth spurt. But when he speaks, he sounds so much older – almost too seasoned for his age.

“All I’ve ever wanted throughout my whole life is to be a regular kid, not someone that people are afraid of,” says the Fort Collins, Colo., seventh-grader.

A bright kid, Austin nevertheless had been segregated from other students at school, whether in special-education classes or holed up at a day-treatment center, because of an inability to control his anger. If another student called Austin “stupid” or otherwise set him off, Austin would act before thinking and lash out at that student – only making matters worse.

The Larimer County Division of Children, Youth and Families received Austin’s case as a referral from juvenile court. A magistrate wanted to place the boy in a residential-treatment center, separating him from his mother and baby brother. But his mother, Jody Trujillo, believed Austin would fare much better at home – and the child welfare system agreed wholeheartedly, persuading the court to keep the family safely together while delivering a variety of in-home services, some quite unorthodox.

Rather than spending precious federal child welfare dollars to maintain Austin in a costly group-home setting, Larimer County took a close look at Austin’s needs and invested wisely in addressing them. The county provided family therapy, enrolled Austin in martial-arts classes to teach him the socialization skills and self-discipline he sorely lacked, and even purchased a special light for his bedroom to treat his seasonal affective disorder.

The impact on Austin has been substantial. “I had a very short temper but now my fuse runs all the way to New York,” he says. “They’ve taught me how to control my anger and what I think about, and also to control peer pressure. That’s helped a lot.”

Larimer County’s child welfare system acted creatively and decisively in serving the best interests of Austin and his family.

Not all children in foster care are there for reasons of abuse or neglect. In Colorado, nearly three of every four older youth (ages 13 to 17) who entered foster care in 2012 have “child behavior problems” listed as all or part of the reason for being removed from their home.

In addition, more than half of the older youth in foster care in Colorado are living in congregate care, also known as group homes. Child welfare systems have begun to realize that group homes are not necessarily ideal settings for these teenagers. As a result, systems are finding ways to address their behavioral issues at home while they live with their families.

Larimer County’s child welfare system acted creatively and decisively in serving the best interests of Austin and his family. It’s familiar territory for Larimer County, which makes it a top priority to prevent the need for foster care and safely reduce the use of congregate care, following a path toward making families strong and keeping children safe.

Colorado runs a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system. The state passed a law in 2011 that offers financial incentives to counties that emphasize prevention and permanency over family separation and foster care.

A similar philosophy drives Colorado’s participation in the federal Child Welfare Demonstration Project, which gives a select number of states the flexibility to invest federal Title IV-E dollars in prevention and permanency services. The bulk of those dollars usually can be spent only on maintaining children in foster care.

As a result of flexible funding, Colorado can emphasize keeping families safely together while giving children like Austin hope to fulfill their dreams.

In Larimer County, the vast majority of children referred to the child welfare system by juvenile court or law enforcement are receiving in-home services instead of being placed in group homes or foster homes, separated from their families. In fact, the ratio receiving in-home services versus out-of-home placement is nearly 8-to-1. Child welfare systems across the country might be able to replicate that ratio if given the benefits of flexible funding.

“We’ve taken our money and spent it on in-home services, except for Title IV-E dollars because we couldn’t,” says Jim Drendel, manager of the Larimer County Division of Children, Youth and Families. “But now we can.”

Statewide, Colorado is implementing a wide range of child welfare reforms under Gov. John Hickenlooper’s “Keeping Kids Safe and Families Healthy” agenda. The Child Welfare Demonstration Project, in the form of the Title IV-E waiver, is an important piece of the governor’s overall plan for improvement. In fact, Colorado was so eager to participate in the demonstration project that it was the first state to apply in 2012.

“The Title IV-E waiver makes the federal government a true partner in our efforts,” says Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services. “We don’t believe that children should have to experience abuse or neglect, or be put into a restrictive placement, before they and their families receive the services they need. We need to align our funding with what we know works best for kids.”

“They’ve taught me how to control my anger and what I think about, and also to control peer pressure. That’s helped a lot.”

Colorado has made tremendous progress in recent years in safely reducing the need for foster care by taking innovative approaches that keep children safe and make families strong. Since 2009, the number of children under age 18 in foster care has decreased by 18.6 percent, which is nearly three times higher than the national percentage.

Colorado’s progress, however, had created an unintended consequence. As a result of Colorado maintaining fewer children in foster care, the level of federal government support to the state was reduced. The Child Welfare Demonstration Project changes all that, allowing Colorado to offer families a wider array of services that have been proven to be effective in preventing child abuse and neglect.

For example, Colorado plans to expand “differential response” from five pilot counties to all 64 counties. Differential response is a recognized “best practice” for serving families with children identified as at risk of abuse or neglect. This early intervention technique addresses family stresses head-on, such as economic issues or parental substance abuse, so that child maltreatment never occurs in the first place.

“You have to know in your brain and in your heart that families can succeed,” says Ginny Riley, director of the Larimer County Department of Human Services. “Our job is to give families the tools to do just that.”

Larimer County believes in Austin Strauser. The innovative services that the county provides him and his family brought to the surface the inner strength, sweet demeanor and gentle humor that Austin and his mother always knew he had, even as others doubted him. As a result, Austin’s greatest wish has come true.

“I can’t believe I’m in regular school now with regular kids taking regular classes,” he says.

But that’s exactly what has happened. For the first time in his life, Austin says, he’s truly happy. He can envision a positive future for himself as a Marine or Navy Seal.

His mother beams: “He’s doing great. I’m so proud of him.”

Read More »