Governor John Hickenlooper joined the head of the Department of Human Services in their first public appearance together since lawmakers called for Hickenlooper to overhaul the department, and possibly fire the executive director.
Earlier this month, the majority of state lawmakers signed a letter to the Governor expressing concerns over what they said are disturbing issues within the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees youth prisons, child welfare and mental institutions. The letter – signed by 86 out of 100 lawmakers - said the state is over prescribing psychotropic drugs to youth in corrections and foster care, and that the department fails to adequately supervise the county run foster care system.
"It's not just two or three or four lawmakers who want to see some real seismic changes but it's almost the entire general assembly," said Representative Jonathon Singer (D-Longmont).
He previously worked as a caseworker in Boulder County and signed the letter. Singer said he believes the state needs to beef up the number of caseworkers as audits show a significant shortfall.
"We know we don't have the workers to handle the work load. That's going to be the hardest part to find new ways to make sure we're going to take care of our most vulnerable citizens," said Singer.
Lawmakers did add more money to hire additional caseworkers in the budget during the last legislative session, but not enough to fill the backlog. For his part, Governor John Hickenlooper stands by the Human Services Department and its leader.
"They are among the best in the United States, doesn't mean they're perfect," said Hickenlooper. "Running a Department of Human Services is the hardest job in state government, because there's zero tolerance, it's like public safety. We all expect absolute perfection."
Colorado won an award on Tuesday from the National Council of Adoption for successfully reducing the number of children in foster care awaiting adoption. After the ceremony, the Governor said he didn't know so many lawmakers were unhappy with the Human Services Department.
"I was surprised, I wasn't aware that the frustration was so deep," said Hickenlooper. "We're going to work a lot harder and making sure we hear clearly what their concerns are and addressing them."
Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha, who has been in the job for several years, said he plans to personally meet with every lawmaker who signed the letter which said they had lost confidence in his leadership.
"There's been a hiccup in the relationship with the legislature, a pretty significant hiccup," said Bicha. "But what we're going to do is sit down with them, hear from them and put a plan together to work together more collaboratively."
Any significant policy changes will likely be debated next year during the state's legislative session. But for now Hickenlooper does not appear to back major shifts, and strongly supports Bicha for creating what he believes is more transparency and accountability within the department.