By Christopher N. Osher, Jennifer Brown and Jordan Steffen, The Denver Post
"I miss her so much," she said recently. "I don't understand how someone can take somebody else's life."
It was Iyana's misfortune to live in Pueblo, which had among Colorado's lowest spending on specialized services aimed at helping troubled families struggling with child abuse and neglect issues.
A Denver Post review found that for fiscal years 2007-11, Pueblo ranked 10th out of the state's 10 most-populous counties in such spending per eligible child, a victim of an antiquated funding system Colorado is seeking to fix.
Buehler takes her share of responsibility for her granddaughter's death on July 3, 2009. She knows she was the person who, exhausted one night, left Iyana in the care of other relatives, including her husband's son from another marriage. He was a felon who killed the child, stuffed her body in a plastic bag and left it in a trash bin behind a Safeway.
But she also blames Pueblo County's child protection workers. They were the ones, she says, who never listened to her pleas for child care assistance when she took Iyana into her home after the girl's parents were deemed unfit to care for her.
The fact that Boulder County, where the average household makes $64,839 per year, receives twice as much money for core services per eligible child as Pueblo, where the average household makes $40,699, infuriated her.
"That just doesn't make any sense," she said. "You would think the poorer counties would get more help than the richer counties, so to speak. We need it. It doesn't matter what county you live in, if you need it, you need it."
Since Colorado started providing what is called "core service" aid in 1994, funding inequities have troubled the program, according to interviews with state and county officials and a review of funding data.
Some counties aggressively sought the money, while others did not, creating a system that left parts of the state underfunded. Those disparities have grown even more pronounced over the years as counties grew and needs increased.
As a result, for nearly two decades, children like Iyana, living in counties that receive less of the money, had less access to core services, such as intensive family therapies, economic assistance, crisis intervention and parenting classes.
County child protection agencies rely on the money to help head off foster care placements and pave the way for children to return home from foster care.
This year, the Colorado Department of Human Services is trying to fix the disparities by factoring in demographics and the number of children eligible for service when money is distributed.
State and county officials will review the changes next summer. If they are made permanent, counties that have enjoyed greater allocations of core service aid will have to send some of it to counties with smaller allocations.
"It's critical that we be fair and equitable," said Melinda Cox, the administrator of the core service program for the state. "Every child and every family in the state deserves it. It's the least we can do for Colorado families: provide equal access throughout the state for appropriate services."
A review of funding data from fiscal year 2011 shows just how disparate the funding was.
Among the 10 most populous counties in Colorado, the average spent per eligible child on core services was $997.
Pueblo spent an average of $825, Boulder $1,711 and Denver $1,200.
In Boulder, where state data shows foster care cases have plunged by more than 60 percent in the last three years, the core service spending helped bolster a robust effort aimed at preventing children from sinking deeper into the child welfare system.
Certain troubled families there can expect daily checks by child protective workers, far more than are done in other areas of the state.
"Our basic premise is that when you provide access to food, access to medical care, access to safe and stable housing, when they are maximized to the greatest degree possible, you can move into other family issues, such as domestic violence or mental health issues or unemployment issues or substance abuse issues," said Frank Alexander, the director of Boulder County's Housing and Human Services.
The core service spending differences are especially pronounced in some of the state's less-populated counties. Lake County pushed its average spending on core services per eligible child to more than $10,000.
In fiscal 2011, Lake County used some of the money to hire a counselor to work in the school district to address the needs of troubled families and children. Last year, the school counselor was replaced by a new county worker, funded by core dollars, who works with families struggling with abuse and neglect issues.
That worker acts as a go-between for those families and food-stamp programs, housing officials, mental health providers, probation officers and other providers.
"Now they all come together for common treatment plans so that there are not a million different approaches," said Jeri Lee , the director of the Lake County Department of Human Services. "It consolidates services and creates more cooperation and collaboration on behalf of the families."
State officials will limit the percentage of aid a county could gain or lose to prevent counties such as Lake from having to cut staff due to the distribution change. Still, significant change will occur if the reforms move forward.
For instance, Denver lost more than $700,000 in core aid this fiscal year. Boulder lost about $250,000. Pueblo gained nearly $250,000.
"In the recent past, people have been raising questions on how effective we are throughout the state, and how we are using our resources," said Jose Mondragon, the director of Pueblo County's Department of Social Services. "The process is driving us toward being more fair and equitable for counties, and, most importantly, helping the people in need."
While the shift will take money from Boulder, county director Alexander sees the change as necessary for the greater good of children throughout the state.
"It is hard to lose core dollars through this particular process," Alexander said. "But we don't see it as penalizing us. It allows those counties that haven't had access to core services to access them now."
The $57.5 million in core service money counties spent in fiscal year 2011 made up just about 15 percent of the $375 million Colorado spent on child protection issues. About 29 percent of that amount was spent on placements of children outside their own homes in foster care or group homes. Just three years ago, those out-of-home placements happened more often, and they cost more than 33 percent of the state's child welfare spending.
Colorado officials want to make sure that as those spending priorities continue to shift, they distribute the child protection money throughout the state effectively.
In an effort to prod Colorado's system toward one that supports keeping children in the least restrictive settings possible, a system that uses foster care and group homes only as a last resort, the Colorado Department of Human Services has set aside $24,000 to pay a consultant, Larry Brown, the former executive deputy commissioner of New York's children and family services, to review all of Colorado's spending on child protection.
Two questions Brown is probing, according to Lloyd Malone, the director of child welfare in Colorado: "Does our formula incentivize the best way to serve families? Is it even antithetical to it?"
Brown said he is just starting his review and is reaching out to state and county officials. Any changes will require several years, he added. One change already is in the works. Federal officials this year approved a waiver for Colorado so the state can shift federal money that previously had to pay the room and board of foster children, whose numbers are on the decline, to family-support services, where need is on the rise.
It was only after Iyana's death that the child protective system offered Buehler any help through child-care subsidies for her other two grandchildren, Elijha 8, and Abcde, 6.
"Everyone knew the circumstances," Buehler recalled. "They knew we needed help, and they refused to help us. That's all I wanted, day care. 'Could you help us with day care? There's day care right down the street.' That's all I asked for. That's all I wanted."
Iyana didn't last a month after Buehler got custody of her . Exhausted one night and facing an early-morning shift the next day, July 4, 2009, at the Denny's where she worked as a cook, Buehler sent her granddaughter over to her son's mobile home for a night.
Kevin Buehler, 22, is serving 32 years in prison for killing 9-month-old Iyana Perez.
Her husband's son from a previous marriage, Kevin Buehler, was staying in the trailer that night too. Snowie Buehler knew he had been convicted of assault for choking his sister. But to her, he was family, once a blond little boy who used to come to her house begging to play with her children.
There were three blows to Iyana's head. His semen was found on her dress, which was in the trailer. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison for the killing.
"Who hurts a 9-month-old child?," Snowie Buehler said. "What kind of person kills her and throws her in a trash can? You don't think your husband's family would do that to you."
State officials who reviewed the circumstances of Iyana's death found that the Pueblo County Department of Social Services should have looked "at the issues of financial support, child care, emotional support, how this family would manage caring for all three children, what services they would need, and to identify any gaps."
Dawn Rivas, the primary child protective caseworker for Iyana, was promoted after Iyana's death to a position as regional training specialist with the Colorado Department of Human Services in charge of training child protective staff in the southeastern counties of Baca, Bent, Crowley, Custer, El Paso, Fremont, Huerfano, Kiowa, Las Animas, Otero, Prowers, Pueblo and Teller counties.
"What I said when I heard that was 'Good luck to those kids,' " Buehler said.
"I am not a fan of social services," she said. "They could have helped me. They could have helped her. They could have helped these other two. Obviously, we were a family in need, and they could have helped, and they didn't."
Rivas declined comment. Her former boss, Tim Hart, one of two child welfare administrators in Pueblo County, said improvements have been made since 2009, the year Iyana died.
"There has been a significant change statewide in practice," Hart said. "And some of that is where the allocation formula struggles. There is a shift from out-of-home placement to program services that are more flexible to support families in different scenarios."
The family's struggles continue. In October 2011, Elijha showed up at school with a scratch across his chest. His teacher told his grandmother she had to report the scratch to police. Snowie Buehler was charged with child abuse, but she said child protection workers tell her she remains the best option for Elijha and Abcde. Prosecutors dismissed the child abuse charge in July.
She says she loves the slender boy with cropped hair, the glasses and the serious demeanor who helps her program her computer. She says she loves his sister, who laughed on a recent sunny day as she ran to the car to lug stuffed toy after stuffed toy to the picnic blanket.
Later that night, with the children lined up on the couch, slurping on popsicles and watching cartoons, Buehler remembered an infant who hardly ever cried .
"I should have quit my job. My husband should have quit his job. My son should have stayed home. My daughter should have been better."
We're all to blame, she said, the family as well as society.
"None of us protected this child," she said. "We all did what we thought we could do, but we didn't protect her."
Christopher N. Osher: 303-954-1747, email@example.com or twitter.com/chrisosher