A bill that aims to create a task force to provide support — including mental-health services — to Colorado’s child-welfare caseworkers crossed its first hurdle on Tuesday, April 11, when it passed out of the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee by a vote of ten to three.
During the nearly two-hour hearing, lawmakers heard from a variety of witnesses, all of whom came to testify in support of the bill. They included representatives from the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Social Workers Colorado chapter, the office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman and the Denver Department of Human Services.
They discussed the high rates of burnout and turnover in the child-welfare workforce and how, by implementing “resiliency programs” as suggested by the bill, a state task force could increase the rates of retention for new caseworker hires.
But the most powerful testimonies came from former caseworkers themselves.
Rebecca Meyers, a lobbyist who used to work as a caseworker in Colorado, told the committee:
“I’ve smelled burning flesh on toddlers from scalding water. I’ve listened to children describe in detail how they were sexually assaulted. I’ve been followed home by clients, and I’ve had knives held at me. I’ve had a man punch a hole in a wall next to my head and whisper that if I took his kids away, he’d kill me. The day after we removed his children, I had to go back to his house to complete a safety assessment. Working as a caseworker is the most beautifully fulfilling job in the most heartbreaking way. It’s exhausting and it’s isolating, and I’ve picked some of the strongest people I know up off the floor and held them as they sobbed, and they most certainly have done the same for me. I raise my daughter differently because of what I’ve seen, and I’m so proud of who I am, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same as I was before. No one really knows how you react in the face of trauma and tragedy, and I believe through the development of this task force, we are moving in the right direction.”
Meyers was one of the caseworkers who shared her experiences in Westword’s February 2016 cover story about the child-welfare workforce, “All Played Out.”
Two other women whose stories are related in that article, Becky Zal-Sanchez and Stephanie Brinks, also testified before the House committee on Tuesday.
“To this day, I wonder what might have been different if I’d received effective mental-health support when I was a caseworker,” said Zal-Sanchez. “Would I have made different decisions with a more clear mind? Would some families still be intact?”
Brinks also wondered about how much longer she could have remained on her job if she’d had proper support.
“The only people who would ever understand what I’ve been through are other caseworkers,” said Brinks. “Had I had the kind of support this bill encourages, I might have lasted longer as a caseworker. I was incredibly proud of the work that I was doing.”
Some lawmakers expressed appreciation for the caseworkers’ testimonies.
“This is going to be with me for the rest of the day," said Representative Lois Landgraf. "I’m so sorry that any of you have had to face that, and that we live in a world where any of these things happen.”
The bill heads to the House floor on Monday, April 17.
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