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Hickenlooper Stands By Embattled Human Services Director

Bente Birkeland
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Department of Human Services Executive Director Reggie Bicha with an award the state won from the National Center for Adoption. Bicha has been under fire from state lawmakers who say they want major changes in the dept.

Earlier in May a 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. The letter states that 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.

In their first public appearance since lawmakers called for overhaul – or possibly firing the executive director – Gov. John Hickenlooper stood by Reggie Bicha.

"They are among the best in the United States, [that] 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."

The number of members of the Colorado General Assembly that share that expectation isn't small; 86 out of 100 lawmakers put their name to the letter, including Rep. Jonathon Singer (D-Longmont).

"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 Singer, a former Boulder County caseworker.

Singer 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," Singer said. "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."

Lawmakers did add more money to hire additional caseworkers in the 2015-2016 budget, but not enough to fill the backlog.

Amid the tussle over the department, Colorado won an award Tuesday from the National Council of Adoption for successfully reducing the number of children in foster care awaiting adoption. After the ceremony, Hickenlooper 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, plans to personally meet with every lawmaker who signed the letter.

"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 during the state's 2016 legislative session. 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.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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