Bill Could Bring Much-Needed Mental-Health Support to Child-Welfare Caseworkers

Bill Could Bring Much-Needed Mental-Health Support to Child-Welfare Caseworkers
Brian Stauffer
A bill makings its way through the Colorado Legislature would create a task force to support child-welfare caseworkers in Colorado — especially in the area of mental health.

Caseworkers face numerous challenges in their work, and child-welfare departments see high rates of burnout and turnover. Nationwide, most caseworkers don’t stay on the job more than two years. In January last year, Westword explored the child-welfare workforce in Colorado in a feature story, finding that workers often face overwhelming workloads and secondary trauma from home visits and difficult cases.

Some of the caseworkers who shared their stories with Westword described the psychological effects of dealing with children who died, death threats from abusive parents, and the immense pressure of managing unreasonable caseloads while regularly making life-or-death decisions.

At the time of the story, a former caseworker named Rebecca Meyers had been working with the Colorado chapter of the National Association of Social Workers to hold focus groups and collect stories from caseworkers across Colorado’s 64 counties to find their greatest needs.

Meyers is now a lobbyist and has been instrumental in getting the task force bill introduced in the legislature. She says that the proposed task force would focus on developing “resiliency programs,” which aim to support caseworkers dealing with secondary trauma as a result of their job. The group would comprise a mixture of law enforcement personnel, state lawmakers, university researchers, human-services officials and caseworkers from across the state.

“It’s a unique group of professionals that have not often, if perhaps ever, sat in a room together to talk about the needs of the child-welfare workforce," says Meyers.

Over the past eighteen months, Meyers discovered that multiple universities, including Colorado State University, Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Denver, were conducting research about resiliency programs but weren’t necessarily sharing data. The task force will pool that kind of knowledge to figure out how to build and implement an effective resiliency program.

“While this task force might be a little more watered down than putting together a pilot program, I also think it’s the right way to move forward, because Colorado could be one of the first — if not the first — states to work on creating a comprehensive resiliency program that’s specifically tied to each county’s needs,” she says.

Sponsored by House representatives Jonathan Singer and Dan Nordberg and Senate representatives Leroy Garcia and John Cooke, the bill is scheduled for its first hearing on April 11.

“I think it’ll move quickly. I don’t anticipate there being many problems," says Meyers, who adds that the bill has had bipartisan support, with some Republicans such as Bob Rankin questioning why the state is throwing money into child-welfare departments without first addressing systemic turnover and retention problems.

Meyers plans to share some of her experiences as a caseworker in Colorado during the hearing. She hopes that she can convince others to do the same, but she knows that bringing up sensitive memories can be painful.

“I’m fully prepared to talk about some of my most vulnerable memories that I have, but it’s a hard thing to do," she says. "I’m working with a couple other caseworkers to see if they are interested."

If the bill passes, it would be a major step toward acknowledging the need for, and current lack of, mental-health support for many of Colorado’s caseworkers.

“Mental health isn’t a fix-all, but it’s certainly an issue that a lot of caseworkers feel would meet their needs,” Meyers says. “My hope is that next year, there would be enough resources that there is the option to start supporting counties by putting these programs in place. This task force is going to be looking at different models and figuring out what exists and how to move forward."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker