Caseworker Conversations: Jessica A.
This blog post is the 7th in our “Caseworker Conversations” series, highlighting the vital role that caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and neglect in Colorado. To read additional caseworkers’ accounts, as well as those of individuals they’ve helped, click here to access the other posts in the series.
Q: What is your title
A: I’m a permanency caseworker in Jefferson County.
Q: How long have you been in this field?
A: I’ve been in my current role for about a year, but I’ve been in the social work field for five years. Prior to Jefferson County, I worked in a homeless shelter in downtown Denver. I also worked as an in-home caseworker in Connecticut before moving to Colorado.
Q: What made you want to pursue this career path?
A: Originally, I went to school to become a teacher. While at school, I started volunteering with kids affected by domestic violence. The moms would attend a support group, and I would play with their kids while they met. I became really interested in this work, so I changed my major. After that, I started viewing the world through a different lens. I had a half-year internship my junior year, and a full-year internship my senior year, so I was exposed to the work early on.
Q: Can you share a story of family transformation that has really stuck with you?
A: One case that I worked on is very memorable because of the dramatic turn it took for the better. It involved a mom and her young daughter. There was a concern about the mom’s mental health, so her daughter had been placed with family members. When I first started working with this family, we weren’t seeing any progress with the mom. She didn’t seem able to comprehend why we were involved or why we were concerned about her family. She was going to therapy, but nothing was coming of it. As time went on, we were looking at a permanency plan for her daughter. After six or seven months, we needed to make a decision about an allocation of parental responsibility (APR) with relatives. If, down the road, mom was to get better, then she could go back to court and petition for custody of her daughter. The APR hearing was set for three months out. We did an evaluation of the mom and found she had borderline cognitive limitation, which means she was right on the border of a developmental disability. She understands and processes information differently than someone with higher cognitive functioning. We recognized that the services she was getting weren’t appropriate for her, so we changed all of her services and found her a therapist and parenting coach who was trained to work with people with lower cognitive functioning. All of a sudden, we began seeing huge differences in her.
We held a meeting and got everyone involved in the case around the table. We decided to vacate the APR hearing just two weeks before it was supposed to take place, and we began working toward returning the girl to her mom. Unfortunately, we hit a bump in the road when the mom stopped taking her medication and had to return to the hospital.
We had another meeting and started creating a support plan for the mom, so that if she started to experience symptoms related to her mental health issues, her husband would know the warning signs to pay attention to. Mom learned that it’s okay to tell someone when she’s not feeling well and that the safe thing to do is address concerns instead of pretending they don’t exist. We feel much more confident that she won’t let things get really bad again, and that she will know to reach out for help.
Not long ago, the mom shared with us that she was going to tell people that caseworkers aren’t bad, that they’re really on your side. Of course, this was incredibly gratifying to hear.
Q: What does your typical caseload look like?
A: It varies. The families I’m working with are primarily facing substance abuse, mental health or domestic violence issues – often all three.
My caseload is ever changing. I sometimes have 17 cases; right now, I have 14, which is really nice. Sometimes I’m working with two-parent households, sometimes single parents. The families can have five kids or just one. The oldest child I’m working with is 17, and the youngest is one. Also, some of the kids can be in group homes or in foster care.
Q: How would you describe a “typical” workday?
A: There’s never a typical day. Every day looks completely different for me and for every caseworker. A day can range from being in court most of the morning to spending the afternoon doing paperwork. I can be in meetings all day (we have Family Engagement Meetings at least every 90 days), or I can spend my days conducting walkthroughs in homes to make sure they’re safe, meeting with service providers, or participating in internal meetings to discuss cases.
There’s tons of paperwork involved in this job – more than anyone realizes – and a lot of emails. We have to document every interaction we have.
Our home visits can be all over the place. I have kids two hours away in the mountains and some who are out of state. (Through an interstate compact, we work with states to assign a caseworker if the child has to be placed with a family member outside of Colorado. Until there is a local caseworker, we travel to where the child is living.)
Some nights I’m in the office until 7 pm. I can have the whole day planned out, and then things can blow up and my plan is out the window. Kids needs to be moved, there’s a safety concern, a parent has committed a crime, there’s a mental health issue…so many things can happen to change the course of a day.
I also try to have fun with the kids, another thing people don’t realize that we do. Anyone who is really trying to be good at this job will spend time with the families. I go out to dinner with the kids, take them to a movie, or stay at their home and play with them. I wish I had more time to engage with families in this way.
Q: What is one of your favorite stories as a caseworker?
A: There was one family whose case had been open for about a year when I took it over. Both parents struggled with drug addiction, and their little one had had to be placed with family as a result. When I got the case, the mom was refusing to get treatment for her addiction, and it seemed like every time the dad took one step forward, he then took two steps back. We needed to find permanency for this child and set forth termination of parental rights. The parents had been struggling with sobriety for a year and a half when we had to make this decision.
We set the court date for six months out, but I told the parents they could still turn things around if they could engage in treatment and maintain sobriety during that time period. By then, the dad was incarcerated, but something clicked with the mom. She seemed to finally realize she was at risk of losing her child, and she went into in-patient rehab. She made it through the program, but we were worried about her relapsing once she got out – a pattern she had followed before. I met with a number of outpatient drug treatment providers and found one she hadn’t tried previously, one that had a unique, holistic approach. The mom was open to it, so we got her enrolled, and she stuck with it! She was staying clean, so we changed course and cancelled the court date. She and her child were reunited, and they are doing great!
This case means so much to me because it serves as a great reminder that anyone can change – and it pushes me to keep going and keep looking for solutions for families, even when things seem hopeless.
Q: What keeps you motivated on tough days?
A: Many different things keep me motivated. I have challenging weeks and months, but then when I see a family making progress, it’s so rewarding. The people I work with also keep me going. I’m still early in my career, and I have so much to learn and so many new areas for growth. I love that I’m constantly being challenged and always learning.
Q: What do you see as the biggest misconception about caseworkers?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions is that caseworkers just want to take kids away from their families. The reality is that we do everything we can to keep children in their homes. When we first get involved, we look at safety plans: Who can support the family so that we don’t have to remove a child?
The second misconception is that if we do have to remove a child, we won’t work to return them as soon as possible. The truth is we always want to reunite children with their families as quickly as it’s safe to do so, but a lot of parents don’t believe this. We want to work with families to address the concerns they are facing so we can reunite them. I sometimes share success stories with families I’m working with (while maintaining the privacy of those involved in my examples) to show them how this works and that families can be successfully reunited. This gives them hope.
Q: What role do caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and/or neglect?
A: One of the main roles of caseworkers is to determine whether a child or children are safe in a home. We have to make the call on whether or not it’s safe for a child to remain in the home or return home. It’s a huge weight on all of us, and we work in a lot of gray; nothing is ever black and white.
Also, caseworkers help educate families so they understand and can implement safety measures so that we don’t have to be involved moving forward.
Most people don’t understand what we do. I spend a lot of time talking to my friends about my experiences in order to help spread the word about the signs of child abuse and neglect and to help people understand that caseworkers aren’t scary people.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A: I want to share just how important it is to have the support of your co-workers. We make sure to have a good time as much as possible, and we go out together. This has been so valuable because the job is so hard and most people don’t understand what we do and what we go through, so it’s essential to support each other.
As a permanency caseworker, Jessica is on the front lines of addressing child abuse and neglect every day. However, you don’t have to be a caseworker to play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect. Click here for more information on how you can get involved in helping families who are struggling. And if you ever have concerns about a child’s well-being, call the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline at 1-844-CO-4-KIDS.