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Should Child-Abuse Caseworkers Be Considered First Responders?

More than 3,000 workers and supervisors often fulfill same role and experience similar stress as police and firefighters, commissioner says

Many consider cops and firefighters first responders, but Christine Norbut Beyer, New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families commissioner, testified Monday that her department’s more than 3,000 caseworkers and supervisors often fulfill the same role and suffer similar stress on the front lines every day when investigating abuse and neglect.

“And at times, they’re there before the police are on the scene… They see a lot of trauma and a lot of pain in those families in addition to the abuse, neglect and injuries that are suffered by children. And so that takes a toll,” said Beyer. “There might be some opportunity for us to talk about them being classified and, so, what goes along with them being first responders and thinking that we might be able to do something then about their mental health.”

“Those caseworkers are first responders in the family. And there’s certain benefits that you get from being a first responder, insurance benefits. But there’s also certain counseling advice that you get from being a first responder; you get offered opportunities for mental health services if you’re traumatized,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

“I can’t imagine dealing with children every single day. My heart would break just seeing some of the conditions they’re in,” Assemblywoman Carol Murphy said. “Is there something that we, as legislators, should be able to do moving forward to help fight this?”

Beyer told the Assembly Budget Committee that her department has no mental health clinicians on-site for caseworkers, but offers confidential peer counseling, crisis debriefings, and in a new contract with Worker2Worker, will provide more mini-resiliency sessions. The Department of Children and Families will shift dollars to pay for it instead of requesting more money, a theme common to several department budget hearings.

“What we’re trying to do now is be more proactive in creating environments that are more healing-centered,” Beyer said.

Carrying a heavy load

CWA New Jersey state director Hetty Rosenstein represents caseworkers. She said they’re supposed to carry caseloads of no more than 14 families each but said they often go over that. Cases often involve extensive documentation and multiple visits that can be dangerous.

“It is a very dangerous job. It is an extremely tough job. There is a great, enormous amounts of stress,” she said. “Our members go out in the field, they go to places by themselves, or maybe with another caseworker — places where the police would knock on a door, they have a partner and they have guns. Our members knock on a door and they say, ‘Let me see your kids,’ and they do that every day.”

Rosenstein wants a robust mental health plan for her caseworkers and says changing their designation to “first responder” doesn’t address specific needs.

“We don’t have enough services in place for our members. Certainly, we could need our human services police back. We certainly could use more support,” Rosenstein said.

The department, which is not requesting more state money, is getting a bump up in federal funding. Officials are determined to do more with less.

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