An Interview with Catherine Strode
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, people with developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be abused compared to their peers in the general population. They also tend to be abused by a caregiver and repeatedly abused for longer periods of time. The Colorado Department of Human Services employs nearly 3,000 direct care staff to serve our state’s most vulnerable people. A small handful of them (two or three) charged with abusing clients, are still employed by the Colorado Department of Human Services because current law does not allow them to be dismissed.
State Representative Janet Buckner (HD 40) is sponsoring a bipartisan bill, House Bill 18-1065, that allows the Colorado Department of Human Services to dismiss employees when there is suspicion of harm. In an interview with Catherine Strode, Representative Buckner says she has a passion for protecting vulnerable people.
Who is bringing the bill?
“The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) approached me, Representative Beckman, and Senator Lambert about running legislation. But I am running this bill on behalf of all of the vulnerable individuals in our state. I want to make sure that the people who are responsible for working with vulnerable people are held accountable if they do anything wrong. That is not to say that CDHS can’t do their job but this bill is going to give them some support. It is going to give them a way, if there is an individual who has committed an egregious act, that this person can be dismissed appropriately. They would be able to take disciplinary actions with employees who engage in willful misconduct or abuse toward clients in any of the CDHS facilities.”
Currently, is the state unable to dismiss employees who have committed client abuse?
“Yes. There have been recent State Personnel Board decisions wherein a terminated employee was reinstated even though the employee had been found to have committed serious abuse and mistreatment of a client. The abuse finding has remained on the employee’s record even after they were reinstated. The Colorado Department of Human Services is precluded by law from hiring someone who has a finding of abuse or neglect on their record. And yet, in certain instances, CDHS has been unable to terminate employees who received a finding while working in state facilities. CDHS explored all options to try to address this issue, including looking at changes to administrative rules and policies. After those were exhausted, it was decided that a statutory change would be needed to better protect the vulnerable persons in the state’s care. This House bill will allow CDHS personnel authorities to give weight to the interest of clients in state care when determining appropriate discipline for employees who have committed acts. This is a small number of employees, but their actions can have big consequences.”
Is the bill retroactive?
“No. It is not retroactive. Unfortunately, in our state we cannot pass bills that are ‘ex post facto.’ That means the legislature cannot create laws that retroactively change the legal consequences or status of actions that were committed. There are some people who we have not been able to dismiss, unfortunately. It’s going to impact employees in the future.”
Where is the bill now?
“We had a robust stakeholder process. The most interested party was Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions (WINS.) Colorado WINS came to the table and did not like part of the way the bill was written. They felt it did not give the employee enough protection. They helped us rewrite the bill and we accepted the way they rewrote it. That’s how we came up with the final bill as it is today. There is a bit of difference in regular law and the law as it pertains to state personnel offices. There were some changes that needed to be made with some of the wording. Now we are still working with our lawyers to get appropriate wording and we are going back to the Judiciary Committee March 1. “We are very confident that we will get this bill out of Judiciary and then it will go to the floor. If we can pass it off the House floor, then it will go to the Senate.”
What do you hope the impact of the bill will be?
“I have this passion for anybody who is a vulnerable person, whether they have developmental delays, mental deficiencies, cannot speak for themselves. This bill will protect all vulnerable people against misconduct and egregious acts. I’m exasperated that someone would say, ‘Oh, you have only had two or three of these cases where this happened.’ One is too much.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.