Caseworker conversations: Michelle D.
This blog post is the 8th in our “Caseworker Conversations” series, highlighting the vital roles that caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and neglect in Colorado. To read more 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 am one of the Child and Adult Protection Services Intake Administrators for Arapahoe County.
Q: How long have you been in this field?
A: 22 years.
Q: What made you want to pursue this career path?
A: I actually fell into it accidentally. I received my undergraduate degree from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. I originally wanted to major in journalism and mass communications and follow my dad’s career path as a broadcaster with the military. However, that would have required transferring, which I decided against. So, I needed a new career path. I chose to pursue a sociology and human services degree instead. In my senior year, I completed two internships at a Durango High School where I was working with teens with emotional disturbances, as well as teens who were pregnant and/or newly parenting. I found a passion for working with kids and wanted to pursue this career path more.
I got married right after college and moved to Fort Collins, where I took a job in a residential treatment facility as an overnight counselor working with drug-and sex-addicted teenaged boys. I then went to work for Arapahoe County in January 1995 as a screener for the county’s hotline. I felt like I’d found my dream job and still think so today. I’ve been here ever since and have worked my way up through child welfare intake. I literally have held every position in intake. I became an administrator five years ago. The journey has been a mixture of fascinating, fulfilling, scary and sad, but it’ has become my life’s passion and work, and I cannot fathom doing anything else.
Q: Can you share a story of family transformation that has really stuck with you?
A: When I had been in intake for about six years, I was assigned a case involving a little girl who was 13. There were reports that her father was inviting teenage boys in the neighborhood to their home to drink, use drugs and molest his daughter (she was developmentally delayed). He did this under the guise that his little girl needed friends because she didn’t have any. He also had been molesting her. Once the detective and I were able to substantiate the concerns, our first priority became ensuring this little girl was safe and in a home free from such abuse. While investigating, the father fled with her, which resulted in a police chase with the detective. The girl was placed in foster care because at the time, as we struggled to find relatives who could care for her. We were eventually able to locate the little girl’s mother who, as it turned out, was also developmentally disabled and living in another state. The mother’s adult sister was her legal guardian and desperately wanted to be reunited with this child. We had learned that the father had fled with this little girl early in their marriage, and the mother and aunt had not had contact for years after the father had threatened them and obtained custody citing the mother’s inability to care for this child.
The mother and aunt were able to come to Colorado, and we were able to reunite them with this little girl. The aunt filed for custody and stayed in the area while we made sure she could provide a safe home and that the transition would go well while they got to know each other again. I was able to advocate to the courts that the girl would be in a safe, stable and permanent environment with this aunt and her mother and could return to their home state. We also ensured that they had the resources they available to address this child’s needs and trauma.
The father was eventually arrested but his trial and sentencing took over 4 years. This was my first big trial and I was very nervous about testifying. However, he was successfully convicted and received multiple sentences that equated to life in prison. After the trial ended, the aunt reached out to me sometime after the trial to tell me that this child was now an adult and how well she was doing. She had made remarkable progress developmentally, had worked through her trauma and was healthy and happy. She thanked me for saving her niece and for helping her to be reunited with her mother and have a chance at life free from abuse and neglect. I felt that I had truly made a difference for this child, who is now 28 years old. I think of her often and am reminded that even if my career has only helped this one child, it was worth all of the hard work, heartache and stress. This was definitely one of the cases that have been career defining for me.
Q: What does your typical caseload look like?
A: Because I’m an administrator, I’m no longer on the front line or involved in the day-to-day management of cases.
Q: How would you describe a “typical” workday?
A: This line of work is definitely not a Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm job. I usually arrive by 7:30 am and leave around 5 pm. There are nights I work from home. Intake is a fast paced job and I have staff who work 24 hours a day. Reports of child abuse and neglect don’t stop when the office closes. Many of my days are filled with meetings and consultations. I sit on a number of task forces and work groups that allow me to advocate for legislative and rule changes and enhance our practice and philosophy. I also get to provide a number of trainings, especially around identifying and reporting child abuse/neglect and educating the community around the important work we do. I am very passionate about involving our community partners in this work and establishing strong connections with each of them.
My co-manager and I oversee a staff of 92, which includes the hotline, adult protection and child protection intake staff and their supervisors. Our hotline staff takes calls 24/7. We are a very busy county and that comes with a lot of work and coordination. We work hard on staff retention, which means checking in with caseworkers regularly to see how they’re doing and ensuring they have the resources and support they need to do their jobs. It is important to me to stay connected to the work they do and the challenges they face. There are a lot of meetings and sometimes multiple crises going on at once, but I love what I do, and I thrive in this environment. I think I was meant to do this work.
Q: What is one of your favorite stories as a caseworker?
A: More than 20 years ago, I was a brand new caseworker. I had just completed a three-day, specialized sex abuse interviewing training and was working on our Swing Shift at night. My supervisor assigned me an assessment that required an immediate response.
There were allegations that the father of a six-year-old girl had molested her, and there was an underlying concern that he might be a suspect in the death of her mother. He had been arrested and when I arrived at the police station, this little girl was hiding under a table. She was very scared and crying and didn’t want to talk with anyone. This was before we had a child advocacy center where kids are typically forensically interviewed by specialists.
I told her my job was to keep her safe and that I needed to talk to her about very difficult things but I could only help her if she told me what happened. She wouldn’t talk. After some time elapsed, there was a concern that she needed a medical evaluation before she could be placed in foster care. I took her to Children’s Hospital so she could be examined and potential evidence collected from her. I stayed with this child through a very difficult medical examination. I didn’t know really know how to help her, so I just held her hand, told her she would be ok and that I would do my best to keep her safe. She held on to me tightly while she cried.
I was able to find her a good foster home once she was released from the hospital. As we got in my car, she began to talk and perk up a little. Once we got to the foster home, she wouldn’t let go of me. She told me she loved me and didn’t want me to leave her. She asked why I would not just take her home with me. She said over and over that she needed me to be with her to keep her safe. I stayed while she ate some dinner and then the foster parent helped her shower and get ready for bed. It took about two hours from the time we arrived at the home to get her to let me go. I stayed with her until she fell asleep. When I left the home that night, although I was a brand new (and scared) caseworker, I felt that I had made a difference with this child, that I was someone that cared about her and her well-being and hopefully she felt protected and safe as she fell asleep. This was when I knew I was meant to end up in this field and that I would strive every day to make children I worked with feel this way.
About a year later, the little girl’s foster mom came into the department at Christmas time. She was in the process of adopting the little girl. The girl had remembered me and had been talking to her foster mother about me. The foster mother shared with me that this child had saved her allowance and asked the foster mom to buy something for me. She purchased a candle and drew me a picture of the two of us. She told me she loved me and would never forget me. This was another career defining moment for me that I will never forget.
Q: What keeps you motivated on tough days?
A: On tough days, I hold on to a combination of things, including my career-defining moments, being reminded of my accomplishments and through the relationships I’ve built in my Department. I also grew up here really. I started when I was just 22 years old and there are still many people around that knew me as a young caseworker. This is home to me. The folks I work with are my family in many ways. I also know on tough days that I have a great supportive team, co-manager and supervisor. I also have very cherished relationships with intake administrators in other counties.
Q: What do you see as the biggest misconception about caseworkers?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions about caseworkers is that either we don’t do enough to keep kids safe or we do too much and are over-involved. Many people think we just take children away from their families. The perception on the news or on social media is very negative. When you couple that with caseworkers who work in a stressful job with a lot of cases and not being highly paid, it is a challenge to keep them employed. It has been a passion of mine to change that perception and to encourage child welfare work to be held in as high of a regard as law enforcement, firefighters or emergency room doctors and for our work to be better understood by our community. Our staff cares very much about families, about keeping kids safe and together, with their families. It is what we strive to do every day. It is only a small percentage of our cases that are portrayed in the news or on social media. There are so many more successes to the work we do that never get reported on. We do great work every day and I want that to be reflected for my staff.
Q: What role do caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and/or neglect?
A: It’s really about intervening with families intentionally, deeply and early on, and educating communities that we’re all in this together. We want families to be connected to their communities and to be supported in the difficult job of being a parent. What we don’t want is families to keep coming back to our attention over and over again. When we are working with a family who has been brought to our attention, we have an obligation to build a strong partnership with them, understand the factors that led them to their current situation and work to mitigate those issues. We want kids and their families to be safe. We also want to teach community members the roles they can play in helping families be successful.
To learn more about Michelle's role in Arapahoe County, watch her video interview here.
As Michelle mentions in her interview, we’re all in this together, and everyone plays a role in preventing child abuse and neglect. Click here to learn how you can get involved in the life of a child in your community, and if you have concerns about the safety or well-being of a child, pick up the phone and call 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437) so they can get the support they need.