By Jennifer Brown
The few dozen paper ornaments hanging from the Christmas tree in the lobby of the state human services department were gone in little more than an hour last year.
Employees snatched them up, eager to buy the requested gifts: a box of diapers, a warm coat, a baby doll.
Like most other giving trees, this one’s branches were filled with the wishes of needy children. Except these were the infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose parents were locked up in youth detention centers throughout Colorado.
Tony Gherardini, deputy executive director of operations for the Colorado Department of Human Services and a father of three, plucked an ornament for an 18-month-old girl. Sitting at his desk downtown, Gherardini tapped his keyboard until he found a Minnie Mouse hat and a matching jacket on Amazon.
The ornament sat on his desk for a week as he waited for the gifts to arrive, and whenever he looked at it, the more it seemed to Gherardini like too small a gesture.
This group of babies and toddlers — separated from a parent they could visit only by entering a locked facility — was largely invisible to the human services department, which includes not only youth corrections, but the child welfare division and the state’s Office of Early Childhood.
The Division of Youth Services was doing little to help young parents serving time stay connected to their children, to maintain bonds that could influence the rest of their lives.