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CO social worker: ‘Our kids are getting left behind because of the staffing crisis’

CO social worker: ‘Our kids are getting left behind because of the staffing crisis’

Heather Burke, a social caseworker with Adams County Human Services in Colorado and president of AFSCME Local 3927 (Council 18), has been in public service for 13 years. Though rewarding, her career as a social worker has also been riddled with stress – stress that’s compounded by inadequate staffing.

While growing up in a family of public service workers, Burke knew she wanted to work with children. She studied social work in college and became an adoption caseworker for eight years.

Though she found joy in finding a suitable home for kids, Burke said she decided to change jobs because she was exhausted and burnt out after routinely working 60-hour weeks. She had to go to therapy to protect her mental health from the stresses associated with the sometimes heartbreaking nature of her job.

However, she didn’t leave the social services field entirely. Her current job involves recruiting foster parents – another meaningful and often difficult task given the shortage of foster parents and caseworkers in Adams County.

Burke says she and other social service professionals like her throughout Colorado are struggling with heavier and heavier caseloads. A typical caseworker lasts only three to five years, Burke says, pointing to burnout as the top reason why people leave the field.

“There are workers who will be pulling 12-15 hour days. I know that for visitations, a lot of those take place after hours. So we have workers out until like 10 p.m. after starting at like 7 a.m.,” Burke says. “You see workers who are just exhausted and they move on to different positions. … Some of my co-workers still wake up with panic attacks in the middle of the night or they can’t sleep because they have so much to do.”

Having a union, Burke says, has helped give workers like her a voice on the job – and a say in helping resolve the staffing crisis. She works with management to find solutions, something that doesn’t happen in other jurisdictions like El Paso County, Colorado, where the social service workers have no union.

Short staffing is shortchanging the children who desperately need help – and that’s something state and local policymakers must realize, Burke says.

“They have to support public services because this is impacting our communities. This is our future. Our kids are getting left behind because of the staffing crisis,” she says. “We need more folks in public service helping to protect the next generation.”

She went on to point out that public service work “is often behind the scenes.”

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