Archive for October, 2012

Doing What’s “Best” Isn’t Enough: Recognizing the Rights of Children

Posted on October 31, 2012 by josh in About VSN

Stephanie Villafuerte, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center


Our criminal justice system rests on a series of constitutional rights, among them the right to counsel and the right to remain silent.  While our police force and justice system often act with the best intentions to keep our communities safe, we, as a society, have recognized that there are certain inherent rights of the accused that must be upheld.  Today, these rights are seen as second nature, but historically, that was not always the case.

While the constitutional rights of the criminally accused have been fully realized, the children in Colorado’s child welfare system still await validation of their constitutional worth.

Reported on by the Denver Post and Channel 9News two weeks ago, the Children’s Law Center, made a simple request of the Colorado Supreme Court: before even addressing whether foster parents do, or do not, have any constitutional rights, first acknowledge that children themselves have a constitutional right to a stable, permanent home that must be recognized and protected at every stage of the process.  This request is on one hand, so inherently basic, and yet, on the other, so very difficult for the child welfare system to recognize.

You’ve all heard the stories . . . children in child welfare who, after experiencing unimaginable trauma in their birth families, suffer continued disruption in the very system designed to protect them.  There are currently 11,000 children in foster care in Colorado.  Many of these children face multiple moves between foster and group homes, kin placements and residential facilities.  These children change families, schools and communities with each move leaving a mark on their mental, emotional and educational wellbeing.

This instability is not for lack of incredibly intelligent, good-intentioned judges, caseworkers, attorneys, and foster parents.  Today, our system’s very essence revolves around making decisions based upon what is in the child’s “best interests.”  Colorado law requires us to put those “best interests” at the forefront.  The reality, however, is despite the very best of intentions, children are often harmed by the system.  At the end of the day, “systems” weren’t meant to raise children, so their results will always be imperfect.

As seen in the criminal justice context, constitutional rights are meant to hold even the most well-meaning of systems accountable to the basic beliefs that serve as the foundation of our society.  Children in foster care are equally deserving of this constitutional “check” on a well-intentioned system.  If we in child welfare are honest, the “best” of intentions don’t always lead to the best of outcomes.

Recognizing formally that children have a constitutional right to a stable, permanent home is not just a matter of rhetoric.  The concept itself holds all of us in the system accountable, setting a higher bar for our judicial practice.  It’s not about being a miraculous fix for the myriad of wrongs faced by kids in care.    It doesn’t detract from the work of those who spend their livelihoods working to keep children safe or diminish the successes of the child welfare system.  Rather, constitutional rights embody those core values of our society that almost go without saying, that represent the very best of who we are and the very essence of what we as a society hold most dear.

We are a system dedicated to protecting children from harm, yet we refuse to provide the constitutional safeguards to protect children from the harm that our own system inflicts.

It’s now up to the Court to play its part and say out loud what has for too long gone unspoken, because at the end of the day, doing what’s “best” for our kids could always be better.

Grateful for Fall

Posted on October 1, 2012 by josh in About VSN

Fall is ushering in wonderful things.

Cooler temperatures, digging out sweaters and wool blankets, and the turning of our beautiful aspens are always a few of my favorites.  And there’s the start of football season, for all you Broncos fans. Fall has also brought something else that I am grateful for – the opportunity to see our friends and colleagues from around the state at the 24th Annual COVA Conference.


I became COVA’s Chief Deputy Director a little over two years ago and I didn’t truly understand this fine organization until I had attended my first conference, which is held each year in Keystone, CO.  The conference is arguably what COVA is best known for and everyone who has attended has a story to tell about their experience. By the time October 2010 rolled around and thus began the final countdown to my first conference, I had no idea what to expect. I had learned that it is the largest statewide victim services conference in the country, with more attendees than most national conferences. Executive Director, Nancy Lewis always likes to refer to it as, “throwing a party for 1,100 of our closest friends.” Our office would periodically be overtaken by a group of dedicated volunteers who could be heard debating and laughing as they helped to plan everything from the theme of the conference to choosing the 72 workshops in 12 different educational tracks. Our staff offices became filled to the brim with registration packets; props and goodies to hand out at the annual President’s Reception and Dance; program books detailing each workshop topic and presenter’s background; and donations to the Silent Auction, which funds conference scholarships for the following year.  Once we arrived in Keystone and the conference began, I understood that that this is a truly special gathering that speaks to the sense of community and collaboration that defines the victim services field in Colorado. This is an event that showcases the expertise of Colorado’s victim services and our professional allies. The workshop topics are difficult, but the pristine mountains help attendees to relax and rejuvenate.  Opportunities abound to reconnect with old friends and network with new allies. And, as conference veterans know, everyone gets a chance to get down and funky at the dance on Tuesday night!


I am looking forward to this year’s conference for all of those reasons, but also because this was a tough summer for Coloradans. Wildfires devastated parts of our state while lightning storms and scorching heat left many of us wondering if our communities would be next.  The shooting death of Officer Celena Hollis at the City Park Jazz Festival and the other gang related shootings in the early part of the year made Denver residents fear this would be the next “Summer of Violence.”  And, of course, the tragedy in Aurora was one the worst mass shootings in our nation’s history and has forever changed the lives of thousands of people. These major events were on top of the other crimes that unfortunately happen every single day.


While I am grateful for all of the things that fall brings, right now I am most grateful that the 24th Annual COVA Conference will bring the opportunity to connect with all of you who work so tirelessly on behalf of crime victims. We’ll see you in Keystone.


Sterling Harris