Caseworker Conversations: Michael B.
This blog post is the 3rd in our “Caseworker Conversations” series, highlighting the vital roles that caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and neglect in Colorado. Michael also chose to share his story in a TV commercial as part of the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Public Awareness Campaign in order to help spread the word that everyone plays a role in protecting Colorado’s children. Check his commercial out below.
Q: What is your title?
A: I’m a senior case manager in Mesa County, Colorado.
Q: How long have you been in this field?
A: Just over four years.
Q: What made you want to pursue this career path?
A: Child welfare was not initially on my radar as far as career options went. In fact, I had a friend in college who planned to go into child welfare, and I thought she was crazy! Instead, I majored in criminal justice and minored in psychology, and I planned to go into criminal justice or law enforcement in some capacity. I took a job in community corrections right out of college but quickly realized I didn’t enjoy being on the punitive side of things. I wanted to be able to offer people more constructive support to help them get their lives back on track. When an opportunity arose for me to take a job in child welfare, I saw it as a way for me to try my hand at doing just that.
It turns out I was right! I soon realized how much I loved working with kids and how rewarding it was to get to know and understand a family and their needs and find ways to proactively address those needs. I knew very quickly that this was a career path I could be passionate about for a long time.
Q: Can you share a story of family transformation that has really stuck with you?
A: One family in particular has really stuck with me. We had a baby who was born drug-addicted as a result of the mother’s drug use during pregnancy. The baby had a lot of health concerns, was on oxygen, was not eating well, and had to be weaned off of drugs over a long period of time. The parents absolutely did not want us to be involved. This was a case where we did have to place the baby in foster care for a while, and the parents were furious. They just wanted their baby back. However, due to the drug issues and additional concerns we had regarding their living situation, it wasn’t safe for the baby to be in their care. They fought us every step of the way. They were hands down the most challenging parents I’ve ever worked with.
In fact, we were headed down the path of terminating their parental rights when something finally clicked. Perhaps the very real possibility of losing their child brought about the change, but all of a sudden we saw a paradigm shift in the parents’ attitudes and behavior. They started investing their time and energy in the services we were providing and internalizing everything they were taught. You could see a dramatic difference in how they interacted with their baby during visits. As a result, we changed course, and they ended up getting their child back. I’m still not their favorite person, but I’m happy to report that they are doing well and they’ve not had any further involvement with the child welfare system.
Q: What does your typical caseload look like?
A: Most of my work is with adolescents and teens who are struggling with significant behavioral issues that their parents haven’t been able to resolve on their own. In fact, many of the kids I work with come to us through their parents, who reach out in search of support. We also get calls from law enforcement and from folks such as teachers and coaches who are concerned about a kid and want to know what we can do to help.
I currently serve on a specialized team known as a congregate care team. My role is to assess the youth that come to our attention to determine if they need to go into residential treatment for a while or if they can get the help they need through wraparound services while staying at home. Our goal is always to keep kids at home when we can, but we also have to make sure our kids receive the level of support they need, and sometimes that requires spending some time in residential treatment. On the flip side, I also help kids who are currently in residential facilities either return home or step down into more home-like settings as quickly as possible.
I also draw on my criminal justice background to assess youth who are in the juvenile court system. In such cases, we meet with the kids’ families to determine how they ended up in the system and what the families have done in the past to try to address their difficult behaviors. We then work to get those kids the services they need in order to get them back on the right track.
In a typical month, I probably conduct 12-15 assessments and see up to seven of those become actual cases. Things have been a little busier so far this year, though. I’ve been averaging about 19 assessments per month, with many of those converting to cases.
Q: How would you describe a “typical” workday?
A: While there are absolutely those days where we have a lot going on and the adrenaline is pumping, the reality is most days consist of a lot of paperwork, a lot of court and a lot of sitting in meetings. We meet with families, schools, doctors and service providers – all to make sure we’re getting kids and families the services they need. It really all depends on the number of cases you have, what kind of kids you’re dealing with and where they are in their journey.
One constant is that every week, I sit on a community board known as ISST, or Individual Services and Support Team. Whenever we have a referral from the juvenile court system, the family signs a release to have their child’s case sent to this community board. All the major players are in attendance at these meetings – parents as well as the Department of Youth Corrections, probation officers, schools, mental health providers and more. We gather together to review each child’s case and determine what course of action we feel is in that child’s best interest. We then present our recommendations for the judge’s consideration. In this way, everyone involved with the child in question is able to play a role in ensuring that child gets the help and support he or she needs.
Q: What is one of your favorite stories as a caseworker?
A: My favorite story is from one of my first cases as a new case manager. There were three kids, and they were all in the same foster home together. Their biological mother had recently had a fourth baby who was very premature and not expected to survive. The children's father was in and out of prison and was not a consistent presence in their lives. By the time I got the case, we were preparing to file for termination of parental rights (TPR), a step that we only take when absolutely necessary.
The process ended up getting tied up in court due to an appeal on another matter that the father had filed. By the time this matter was resolved, the baby who had been born so prematurely had actually survived and was thriving in a wonderful foster home. The baby’s foster parents had already made the decision to adopt the baby once the biological parents’ parental rights were terminated. We also started a conversation with the foster parents of the three older girls about the possibility of adopting them. They agreed that was something they wanted to do as the girls had become a part of their family.
The baby's adoption process moved very quickly once parental rights were terminated. However, the other three girls’ adoption process took more time. An adoption date was finally set, and then we learned that the the foster family had gotten involved in unsavory behavior and become unfit to be a placement for the girls. The girls were nothing short of devastated. The day that I had to move them from this home was one of the toughest days I have had as a caseworker. They had spent the majority of their lives in this home, and they again were losing people that they considered their parents.
The girls were placed in a short-term foster home on an emergency basis, and then a new foster family was identified to take them. They moved into this new home but really struggled to adjust. The foster family was new to foster care, and they were learning right along with the girls while the girls were processing the trauma they had just endured. The foster family requested a meeting with me, and I was sure they were going to tell me that they wanted the girls moved. To my surprise, they let me know that they wanted to adopt the girls! They said despite the struggles they were having, the girls completed their family, and they could not imagine them going anywhere else!
Almost four years to the date of when they were initially removed from their home, the girls’ adoption was final. Theirs was my very first adoption hearing, and it continues to be a huge highlight that I think back on often. I recently ran into the family out in the community, and the girls are turning into wonderful young ladies.
This is one of my favorite stories as a caseworker for a number of reasons. First, it shows the unbelievable resilience that children have. Despite enduring traumas I could never even begin to understand, these girls have made it and continue to smile everyday. It also shows the wonderful compassion that foster families have and how they are truly heroes to the children they take into their homes as their own. And it shows all the people that are needed to help children and how it is really a community effort. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, it shows that these kids are worth it!
Q: What keeps you motivated on tough days?
A: Remembering and celebrating successes is key. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative in this job, especially when you’re not seeing much progress from the families and youth you’re trying to help. However, when you do have those successes – be they family reunifications, seeing parents go all out for a child or watching kids make meaningful behavior changes – it is so incredibly rewarding. You have to hold on to those on tough days and remember that there’s a reason we do what we do. We may be experiencing a rough day or rough week, but in doing so, we are also helping someone else find their way to better, brighter days in their own lives.
Q: What do you see as the biggest misconception about caseworkers?
A: By far the biggest misconception is that we want to take kids away from families or break families apart. The truth is that our ultimate goal is always to get kids back home with their families as quickly as possible, and when we can adequately support families with wraparound services without removing the child in the first place, all the better. In cases where it’s not safe for a child to remain living with his or her parents, then we still try to place them with a grandparent, aunt, uncle or other relative.
People also mistakenly believe that we have the power just to come in and remove children from their homes at will. This could not be further from the truth. We must go through a number of channels before a child is removed from his/her home, and a judge must ultimately sign off on that decision. Again, though, our goal is always to keep families together when possible – or to work toward reunification as quickly as possible.
The good news is I do feel like some of those perceptions are beginning to shift. I used to hesitate to tell people I worked in child welfare because of the reactions that would elicit. Now, however, when I tell people what I do, it usually sparks a lot of great conversation. I’m able to tell people about the 1-844-CO-4-KIDS statewide hotline for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, as well as help them overcome any concerns they may have about calling that number. I’m able to explain exactly what happens when they call and encourage them to let us – the professionals – know about their concerns so that we can help.
Q: What role do caseworkers play in preventing child abuse and/or neglect?
A: Even though my current role doesn’t center so much on families dealing with abuse and neglect, I do think caseworkers play a critical role in preventing those things. If we can convince people to report concerns that they have, we can then work with families to get them the services they need when they need them in order to resolve issues and/or prevent situations from escalating. We can’t help families we don’t know about – that’s why it’s crucial for folks to call and let us know when they have concerns about something that is going on.
While Michael’s job puts him on the front lines of protecting Colorado’s children, everyone can play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect - even those individuals who aren’t raising a child or working with children every day. Whether it’s calling the statewide hotline to share concerns, volunteering for a nonprofit that helps at-risk children and youth, mentoring, or simply offering a hand to a stressed out parent you know, you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of Colorado kids and families.