Parents of children with disabilities, empowered by a recent city audit that uncovered “shameful” misspending of taxpayer money, demanded new laws Thursday and a state investigation into the community boards that manage their children’s services.
In a standing-room-only Capitol rally, parents held signs and pushed their young or adult children in wheelchairs as they vowed to fight for action ahead of the legislature’s return in January.
“We are absolutely determined not to stop until there is reform in the system,” said Maureen Welch, mother of an 8-year-old boy with Down syndrome. “Our concerns are real. They are legitimate. They are documented.”
A recent Denver audit found Rocky Mountain Human Services, a nonprofit that manages therapy and respite care for Denver children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, misused millions of dollars.
The agency spent $48,000 ordering food for staff meetings, reimbursed its 250-member staff for home Internet services, provided workers Costco memberships and overcharged the city $650,000 for administrative expenses. Former chief executive Stephen Block, who was put on leave this year and then fired, received $478,974 in pay and benefits in 2014. Denver’s new city auditor, Tim O’Brien, called it “shameful.”
Meanwhile, families say their children are left on waitlists for years or told their benefits have “capped out.”
They want a state audit that would reach further than the city audit, plus financial transparency of the $500 million spent annually on intellectual and developmental disability services.
“We are not going to let this kind of travesty continue any longer,” Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, told the crowd to applause. “Is everyone done with this?”
Reiskin said this “fiasco would have never happened” if parents were allowed more input in the process. “This isn’t something that ends for us at 5,” she said. “This is our every-day lives.”
Rocky Mountain Human Services is one of 20 “community centered boards” that deliver long-term services for people with developmental disabilities. Families are assigned case managers by the boards, which oversee how families spend their benefits on physical therapy, horseback riding therapy, respite care when parents need a break, and numerous other options.
The boards are funded almost entirely by public money, but are not subject to open records laws and can keep their budgets secret. Families want the legislature to pass a bill from Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, that would put the boards under the purview of the Colorado Open Records Act.
“Please do what is right and pass legislation to open the books,” said Dawn Caldwell, mother of a teenage son with disabilities. Money misspent by Rocky Mountain could have paid for 27,000 hours of respite care for families, according to her calculations.
Parents, many of whom belong to Parents of Adults with Disabilities in Colorado, want a state investigation of all 20 boards.
Families are also pushing for more representation on the community boards and an end to the boards’ lobbying tactics. They argue that money that should go toward their children is instead spent on lobbyists.
Brenda Whitlow, case management director for Rocky Mountain who attended the rally, said she expected it would be crowded. “We take this whole situation incredibly seriously,” she said. “We have made significant changes in the last six months. We care deeply about the quality of care we provide our clients.”
Rocky Mountain officials say that over the next six months they will revamp their board and executive committee to include more family and community representatives.
Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jbrowndpost