Garfield County child welfare work wins high praise in national review
Garfield County’s child welfare division got some big recognition recently when it was called out by a federal review team for setting the bar for the nation.
Each year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Children’s Bureau has a team that reviews child welfare practices across the country. The team visits each state every six to seven years.
This year was Colorado’s turn, and the team evaluated three counties: Denver, Pueblo and Garfield. Garfield was the only one to volunteer, said Sharon Longhurst-Pritt, service administrator for the Garfield County child and adult welfare division.
The child welfare division is Garfield County Department of Human Services’ second-largest division and an extremely important one, said Mary Baydarian, the county’s DHS director. It has 31 employees handling cases of child abuse and neglect, as well as protection for at-risk adults.
Through September of this year the division has assigned nearly 350 referrals of child abuse or neglect to caseworkers for assessment. Up to 85 percent of these cases are due to substance abuse by the parents, said Longhurst-Pritt. These can be cases also involving physical and sexual abuse, said Baydarian.
When the Children’s Bureau review team came, it was time for this division to go under the microscope. It was the first time that Garfield County’s child welfare division had undergone such a review.
The federal reviewers dissected 17 Garfield County child welfare cases, reviewing documentation and interviewing families, foster parents and everyone involved.
Twenty-seven state and federal reviewers were here for a week, covering every aspect of these cases, said Baydarian. Their job was to assess and audit how well the division following federal guidelines for child protection, focusing on outcomes of permanency, safety and well-being, said Longhurst-Pritt.
And afterward the reviewers lauded the child protection division for some remarkable work. Though it is rare to get a perfect score on every criteria in a case, the federal review team scored nine of the Garfield County cases with 100 percent in every category. By comparison, Denver and Pueblo counties only had one case each at 100 percent in all categories, said Longhurst-Pritt.
The reviewers heaped praise on the child welfare division for “ubiquitous hard work and dedication.”
“There’s a high level of expectation of performance here,” she said. For example the division has rules setting the minimum number of contacts with families, but its staff goes above and beyond. The federal reviewers also noted that Garfield County’s child welfare division frequently contacts families earlier than their deadline.
“We did highlight one particular key strength across the board,” said Deborah Smith, regional program manager for the Children’s Bureau. “What we noticed is that the initiations often occur even prior to the required time frame. If the requirement was a five-day response, the staff person went at two days, or three days, or maybe even the first day. So, very quick response, and that was not just in one case, but in several cases. We’re obviously very concerned about the safety of children, so you should really give yourselves a big round of applause.”
A big strength of the division is also in its family meetings, which are used to provide a sense of transparency to parents involved. And those often bring in more extended family, neighbors, school personnel and faith leaders. “We’re also very transparent about areas that need improvement,” said Longhurst-Pritt.
“It really does take a particular type of personality to do this work,” said Longhurst-Pritt. “Someone who has a caring heart and likes to interact with people, it takes more than that. You have to be tough, to be able to engage and empathize with the family, but at the end of the day also be able to hold them accountable.”
Caseworkers are also hard to retain, with the normal working life of a caseworker at only about two years. “But I think what added to the success of our review was our good supervisors” who Longhurst-Pritt says have been more stable, sticking it out for a number of years.
County Commissioner John Martin also praised the division’s work during the review. “The dedication, empathy, understanding and willingness to help exudes,” he said. “Thank you so much. I’m very proud of each and every one of you.”