Last year, a group of early childhood advocates in the western Colorado city of Grand Junction envisioned opening a free 24-hour child care program to serve families in crisis.

But problems getting a state waiver for the project derailed that dream. Leaders of the effort say they’ll now pivot to working on legislation that explicitly allows such centers, called “crisis nurseries.”

That push could take a year or more, said Lacy Hildebrand, interim board chair of the proposed Grand Valley Crisis Nursery.

Crisis nurseries are meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system. They’ve been around for years in other states, but none exist in Colorado. The state has no licensing rules for such programs, which run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and rely heavily on volunteer labor to care for the children.  

The push for a crisis nursery in Mesa County, where Grand Junction is the county seat, began  in 2017 around the same time as a broader campaign in the community to improve child and family well-being by dramatically expanding child care. That effort, called Child Care 8,000 for the number of new child care slots community leaders hope to create, is ongoing.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who spearheaded the crisis nursery project, initially hoped to get a state waiver to allow the nursery to open at the end of last year. But a state advisory board that considered the waiver option last spring decided against it. Planned fundraisers for the nursery were canceled and Stover later moved out of state, though she’s still involved in the effort.

Hildebrand said project leaders decided to reconstitute the crisis nursery board and plow ahead with the slow effort to craft legislation.

“We all do truly believe in this cause,” she said. “If we get this pushed through legislatively … that will make it so anyone in the state can get this license.”

Stover’s original vision for the crisis nursery, borne out of her experience volunteering at a crisis nursery in California, was to provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea was to give parents a safe place to leave young children in times of serious turmoil — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss.

Such crises can leave young children at risk for abuse or neglect, say if a stressed parent lashes out in frustration, or leaves kids with an unsafe caregiver.

Stover heard from many advocates that a crisis nursery was sorely needed in the community.

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — were rising steadily. In addition, the western Colorado county faces numerous other challenges. Nearly 30% of county children are born to single mothers compared with 23% statewide, according to the 2018 Kids Count in Colorado report. Also, Mesa County’s rate of foster care and other out-of-home placements is double the state average.

Hildebrand, who is also a program assistant with the Mesa County early childhood council, said she and other board members hope to work with Colorado staff from Save the Children Action Network on legislation. She’s not sure whether they’ll be able to get a bill off the ground for the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January.

“I’m hopeful to get it done as soon as possible,” she said.