Many of Colorado’s child-abuse workers are inexperienced and overwhelmed and, at times, fail to take basic steps to protect children: interviewing parents, properly assessing a dangerous home or checking a child’s body for obvious signs of abuse, a Denver Post analysis of state data found.
Caseworkers failed to follow state policy at least half of the time when asked to protect a child who later died of abuse or neglect, Colorado fatality reports show. Their mistakes ranged from paperwork problems to not visiting a child within the time required, or at all, and dismissing – without proper investigation – abuse allegations before the child’s death.
The job of a caseworker is tough – so much so that in a federal grant application submitted last year, state officials said they fear many of the state’s child-protective workers are at the breaking point. A survey of more than 500 of Colorado’s child-protective workers who had participated in training sessions found 59 percent suffered from high or very high levels of “compassion fatigue,” causing burnout, poor performance and turnover, the 2011 application said. Those caseworkers, it said, can suffer from “anger, fear, anxiety, hopelessness and helplessness.”
Skip Barber, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children’s Agencies, a group of not-for-profit advocacy agencies, said “We gave them an unmanageable, thankless job. If a caseworker makes a mistake, it’s front-page news. The system was set up to fail.”
And it is failing. Seventy-two kids whose families or caregivers were known to the child-welfare system in Colorado have died in the last six years. Child-protection workers failed to note unsafe living conditions, concerns about caregivers and previous contacts with the child-welfare system before children were killed, according to 59 state child fatality reviews released to the Post.
While investigating reports of abuse or neglect, child-protection workers did not talk in 10 cases to the person accused of the abuse and did not talk in nine cases to other contacts such as doctors and teachers.
In addition to failing to properly investigate claims of abuse or neglect, child-protection workers struggle to correctly write safety assessment plans meant to evaluate the risk of harm. the Post’s analysis found caseworkers did this wrong 24 times out of 59 cases where children ended up dead. “When you have a young, inexperienced staff, their ability to make good decisions is not huge,” said Tracey Feild, director of the child-welfare strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.