DENVER (AP) — Sweeping legislative reforms to Colorado's troubled foster care program take effect in August with the goal of revamping a system where kids graduate from high school at lower rates than homeless children.
Crafted with the help of foster parents as well as former foster kids who aged out of the system, the package of legislation aims to provide more stability for children, the majority of whom change schools at least once per year — to the detriment of their education.
Lawmakers say it's among the most comprehensive package of reforms that has been attempted in the nation. And while foster care problems are pervasive across the U.S., Colorado's system is particularly challenged.
In 2017, less than 1 in 4 foster kids in Colorado graduated high school in four years, according to the state Department of Education. That's worse than the rate for homeless kids, who graduate at a 56 percent clip in Colorado.
Nationally, around half of foster kids graduate on time.
Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, points to instability as a key driver of the broader challenges foster kids face.
Around 55 percent of Colorado's 6,500 foster children changed schools at least once last year. A Denver Post investigation published this spring found that more than 1,500 foster kids "aged out" in the last five years — meaning they were emancipated without being adopted, reunified with a parent or set up with a legal guardian.
Without a support system as they transition to adulthood, the Post found, these kids often wind up unemployed, homeless or in jail.
"Too many kids are set up to age out of the system," Bicha said. And "once you're out, you're always out," he said, meaning those who find independence too challenging can't go back for help.
One bill set to become law in August will provide a mechanism for 18- to 21 year-olds to re-enter care after they have been emancipated. Another provides funding to implement a 2015 federal law aimed at providing kids with transportation so they can stay in the same school, even if they move to a new district. It requires school districts and child welfare departments to work out the logistics.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to allow foster parents to obtain medical and educational information for their foster child — records they can't obtain today.
"Imagine providing foster care to a 10-year-old, but being told you can't get educational records, or can't get medical records," Bicha said.
The administration, meanwhile, has committed to an ambitious goal of its own — recruiting enough new foster parents to close a projected shortfall of 1,200 caretakers within the next five years. Prospective foster parents and others who want to help can learn out more at co4kids.org.