Ned Breslin wasn’t raised in a military family, but when he graduated from high school, he had already called nine places home.

Breslin acted out in school. By default, his teachers labeled him a bad kid. In reality, something serious was happening at home—Breslin was living with an abusive father.

“What I learned is that these support systems that were supposed to be there for me—family, school, church, teams—weren’t,” Breslin says. “I’d be the last one in the locker room to shower, and I would wait until every single person was out of the showers because I had bruises that couldn’t be explained by a hockey puck.”

Ned Breslin. Photograph courtesy of the Tennyson Center for Children

Data from the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) shows that, even today, Breslin wouldn’t be alone in his experience. Over the course of 2015–2016, the CDHS reported more than 3,000 substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect in Denver County.

Breslin’s experience as a child gave him a firsthand knowledge of the glaring shortcomings in institutions that should have—but failed to—support him. He’s now 52 years old, and memories of that flawed system are still fresh. Through his work, Breslin hopes he can lead a revolution in how we care for survivors of child abuse and neglect.

In December 2016, Breslin began work as the Chief Executive Officer of Tennyson Center for Children (TCC). TCC provides residential and therapeutic services, as well as K-12 education, for children who have suffered abuse or neglect, or have significant mental health or developmental issues. In 2016, the nonprofit provided more than 1 million hours of direct care to children—which translates to anywhere from 200–300 kids and families served each month.

TCC orchestrates several programs. Day treatment provides both an academic and social education to about 100 kids per month at the Center, with the goal of getting them back into a traditional classroom. TCC’s community-based services—which recently surpassed its day treatment as the most used program—Tennyson’s Family Support Specialists visit a family’s home weekly to help create a stable, safe environment. And lastly, TCC offers housing to about 50 kids per month. These kids have likely lived in several households with both strangers and family members and have learned not to trust their caregivers. The five brick cottages at Tennyson are seen as a home for children who have very few options left.

The kids have their own rooms here, with one twin bed, a closet, and a desk. They receive 24-hour care and eat dinner family style. Sometimes, Breslin joins them, and occasionally the kids get to choose the meal. One night, they chose Frito Pies, and Breslin and the social workers rolled with it. Breslin says it was a blast. These bonding moments are something Breslin is keen to emphasize. He understands the impact those tiny actions have.

Long before Breslin came to TCC, he lived in Africa with his wife for 16 years. He returned to the States in 2006 and for the next decade made a name for himself in the nonprofit world. He served as CEO of Water for People, a Denver-based organization that works to provide poor, rural communities around the world with long-term access to water, and as the vice president for partnership and strategy investment at the Wounded Warrior Project in Colorado Springs.

“The common thread is that all of these people I’ve served are pretty voiceless,” Breslin says. “At Water For People, we pivoted against mediocre practices and shifted the way the whole sector operates.”

Tennyson Center for Children
Photograph courtesy of the Tennyson Center for Children

That is something he’s taken to Tennyson Center. Breslin says they don’t stop focusing on a child once he or she leaves their programs.

“We’re not satisfied with only doing a good job here in the short-term,” Breslin says. “Too many kids who have been abused, neglected—and not supported—end up in jail, in the hospital, on the street, and too many end up committing suicide. We want to change the trajectory of these kids.”

To achieve this, he’s developed the overarching “Every Kid Forever” strategy, which is based in the idea that no child experiencing trauma from abuse and neglect should be abandoned, and that this dedication should last a lifetime. Within “Every Kid Forever” are several plans, including one with the goal of improving the likelihood of orphaned children getting adopted even as they age—as a child gets older, his or her chances of being adopted tend to drop substantially. Another, “No Kid Waits,” is aimed at eliminating waitlists for children in need of support. Currently, Colorado families wait sometimes as long as eight weeks from the time a caseworker is notified of abuse or neglect to when they actually make contact. Breslin’s goal is to bring that down to within 24 hours of a caseworker being notified.

Presently, Tennyson operates in Denver, El Paso, and Weld Counties. In five years, he wants to expand Tennyson’s reach to five counties outside of Denver—and to eliminate the waiting period in all of them.

“We imagine big things,” Breslin says. “To get them done we’ll have to weave together competitors and work together in a new way. Tennyson Center can’t do all 64 counties, but if we can show the key players in each country how we did it, then perhaps they can replicate our success.”

The best way for people to help, Breslin says, is to donate money, volunteer their time, or recognize the signs of abuse and neglect. Although a slight majority of Tennyson’s funding comes from public programs such as Medicaid and Denver Human Services, cuts are likely if the American Healthcare Act passes through the Senate as it currently stands, as the bill includes $880 million in spending cuts for Medicaid. Breslin says they’re preparing for any scenario, and they will continue to provide care for kids no matter what. But if massive cuts do happen, it could be more difficult for Breslin to find partners in surrounding counties to help achieve the goals of “Every Kid Forever.”

“We don’t want a wiping out of the sector, so we like stronger social services,” Breslin says. “I am worried about the ecosystem of this sector. Everyone needs to be strong.”

Read Natasha Gardner’s feature on child abuse in Colorado, “Our Children, Ourselves”.