A single mom who worked in human resources and conflict resolution, there was little in Newell’s background to suggest she would become, as some of her statehouse colleagues call her, “the champion for the children.”
Newell last year was among the lawmakers who launched a children’s caucus in the legislature to focus specifically on early childhood and child protection issues.
The group reconvened last Monday with increased backing and with hopes of making a difference. Nearly one-quarter of the legislature’s 100 members — many Democrats but also several Republicans — were in attendance.
“I got to the legislature and what I realized is many lawmakers don’t want to talk about abuse and neglect,” Newell told me Thursday. “Some don’t want to engage. Others who want to, you start to get involved and you realize it’s such a complex system — especially with a state-monitored and county-delivered setup.
“Nobody was really taking up the charge, and that’s just when I fell into that area of policy.”
Issue caucuses are not unheard of under the gold dome. Prior years have seen groups that support sportsmen, transportation and even beer.
But over the next three months, an underrepresented constituency — one that can’t buy ads or hire lobbyists — will benefit from the work of the children’s caucus.
In the aftermath of the Denver Post /9News ” Failed to Death” series that found that 72 of the 175 children who died from abuse or neglect since 2007 were previously known to child welfare workers, Newell is among those taking up the charge to improve the system.
Since the series was published last fall, Newell said, a core group of stakeholders have been working hard to craft an appropriate legislative response.
“We’ve been getting together and working — with state officials, counties and different advocates — and we’re putting together a child protection agenda that will be a suite of bills that we roll out at the end of the month or the first week of February, “she said.
Two measures have already been introduced: Senate Bill 47, which aims to protect kids in foster care from identity theft; and Senate Bill 12, which adds youth sports coaches to the list of people required to report suspected child abuse to social services or law enforcement.
The group is also tracking more than a dozen other bills on issues that involve children.
Asked how she responded to cynics who think lawmakers embrace issues as being “for the children” when there are other motives in play, Newell said that’s not how voters see it when it comes to early childhood and abuse and neglect issues.
She said she knocked on more than 30,000 doors in her re-election bid and that residents were “really tuned in to children’s issues.” In an era of big-spending corporate and political interests, that’s a refreshing sign.
The children’s caucus this year is getting a small boost from the Tennyson Center, a treatment center for “emotionally and crisis-affected children and youth.”
The center is helping the caucus with its website and, perhaps most important, with lunches for lawmakers who attend the semi-weekly caucus meetings.
That may seem like a small step — but a working lunch is a great way to see that work gets done.
For her part, Newell hopes to see the caucus pick up steam and additional members, particularly given that nearly a third of lawmakers in the Capitol this year are newly elected.
“We’re hoping that we’re getting legislators from all across the state and both sides of the aisle,” she said.
E-mail Curtis Hubbard at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @curtishubbard
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