On The Case: The journey of Kiowa County’s sole child welfare caseworker
September 19, 2021
Audrey Johnson never imagined when she became a mom during her senior year of high school that she would one day earn a master’s degree in social work while serving as Kiowa’s County’s sole child welfare caseworker. Audrey’s career in social work can be summed up in one word: persistence.
Audrey’s work with the Kiowa County Department of Social Services (DSS) began when she was hired as a front desk receptionist in 2009. It was her first professional job and she soon realized there was plenty of room for advancement and career development right there within Kiowa County DSS. At the time, there was just one caseworker for Kiowa County. Once that person retired, Kiowa County DSS contracted with a neighboring county to hire one of their caseworkers for one day each week. There was an ongoing challenge to fill the child protection caseworker role adequately for the families, youth and children in need. Working at the front desk gave Audrey an up-close view of the needs of Kiowa County families as she saw they were not getting the support they needed when there was limited caseworker availability, unclear access to information they needed and questions remained unanswered. So Audrey hatched a plan for a solution.
She started taking on case aid work in 2012 helping to supervise family visits, provide transport and lend other support to local families. Audrey realized that what she wanted was to be a caseworker but with no college degree she had to forge her own path. With the support of her boss, Dennis Pearson, director of Kiowa County DSS, Audrey applied and was selected for the Colorado Child Welfare Scholars Program, which allowed her to begin working as a caseworker in 2015 while simultaneously pursuing her degree.
In 2017, Audrey earned her bachelor’s degree and a $7,000 stipend from the Colorado Child Welfare Scholars Program to offset her tuition in exchange for a commitment to serve as a caseworker in a rural Colorado county for at least one year. But she didn’t stop there. In 2018, Audrey earned her master’s degree in social work from Metropolitan State University and a second stipend from the Colorado Child Welfare Scholars Program – this time for $13,000 – to help with tuition. In five years, Audrey went from a receptionist with no college credits to a caseworker with a master’s degree. All while working full-time and raising two kids. None of it was easy but it has all been fulfilling.
Audrey finds immense purpose and satisfaction in her role as a child welfare caseworker. She is able to provide support to families that need it and help parents to overcome real challenges. “I often think of my role as someone who helps families find hope in times of crisis,” said Audrey. “I don’t come into families’ lives when they are at their best so I try working side by side with them to find hope - hope that they can be connected with services, hope that their home will be a safe place for their children, hope in all different forms.”
Audrey enjoys the flexible work schedule that the job allows and while it can sometimes be demanding, she is able to balance her personal and professional life while earning a decent salary and benefits such as paid time off and health insurance. Audrey also appreciates the collaboration and professional support system among caseworkers across the state.
Recently, Kiowa County hired another caseworker so Audrey is no longer its only child welfare caseworker. Prior to that, Kiowa County had an open casework position for three years. Audrey thinks one of the barriers in filling this position is meeting the State’s educational requirement of holding a bachelor’s degree in the human behavior field at a minimum. She also recognizes that while she thrives in a small town, a rural county isn’t for everyone. For those considering a career in social work, Audrey believes that a key to success is empathy, a willingness to listen, a passion for helping others, and perhaps a dash of persistence. “You change every family that you interact with – that’s pretty powerful,” added Audrey.
Audrey is also helping to encourage a local young adult who has an interest in child welfare work by mentoring a recent high school graduate. The teen was hired by Kiowa County DSS as a summer intern, and Audrey is thrilled to have the opportunity to help cultivate her passion for social work and teach her how to help strengthen families in the community.
This post is part of the CO4Kids On The Case blog series that shares insights from Colorado child welfare caseworkers about the important work they do and why they chose a career in social work.