DENVER (AP) – Nearly 90 of Colorado’s 100 lawmakers have asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to oust leaders at the state’s Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees child welfare, youth prisons and mental institutions.
The lawmakers cited “disturbing issues” at the facilities in a letter obtained by The Denver Post. The letter cited alleged abuse of people with disabilities and overmedication of foster children. Lawmakers also cited a 2014 riot at a Colorado Springs youth facility.
“Most recently, these accounts have increased dramatically, now coming directly from our constituents, some having reached the public media outlets, with no word from the department or your office,” says the two-page letter, which precedes 86 signatures.
The legislators say there is a “culture of fear, retaliation, secrecy and self-protectionism” at the agency. They do not name the executive director, Reggie Bicha. But they ask the governor to correct or replace leadership at the agency.
A spokeswoman for the governor tells the newspaper that the governor is taking the letter seriously and reviewing it.
The letter comes after a tumultuous year for Bicha, who clashed with lawmakers over a youth prisons funding request one legislator called “deceitful” and a bill to give independence to the ombudsman who investigates the handling of child abuse and neglect cases.
“Please know I take all concerns seriously,” Bicha said in a statement. “I have worked my entire life to make the lives of families and children better – a goal I know is also motivating those who signed this letter.”
The Denver Post, which requested the letter Monday night, received it from the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon. The delay occurred because release of the letter required review by the governor’s legal division as a matter of procedure, spokeswoman Kathy Green said.
Hickenlooper hired Bicha from Wisconsin, where he headed the department of children and families, soon after he was elected in 2011.
The purpose of the letter, which its authors originally intended to keep quiet, was to inform the governor of dealings between the legislature and the department.
In January, Bicha took heat from the budget committee regarding a request for additional guards for youth prisons. The department had asked state budget writers in December for $6 million to add 125 guards, but Bicha made no mention that the agency already started hiring in November.
The lawmakers didn’t learn about the 53 hires until January, when the department, which oversees the Division of Youth Corrections, asked for an extra $1.2 million this year to pay the new guards.
Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs and the Legislature’s chief budget writer, said the agency’s transparency problems are not new.
“There is so much going on in that department, and it seems it’s in every division,” Lambert said. “It’s just one bad audit after another.”
Human services department leaders also battled with lawmakers this session over a bill to give the child welfare watchdog independence from the department.
A compromise bill to move the ombudsman to the state judicial branch is awaiting the governor’s signature.
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