This story is part of a continuing series of Hometown Heroes. CACSEI is highlighting the work of regional child protection workers, advocates, law enforcement, and allies in our work against child abuse.
There’s an expectation that people know what they’re signing up for in their chosen career. It is a given that police officers have to go into dangerous situations, nurses are exposed to viruses and illness, and of course young physicians work long hours and miss important holidays. The expectation stems from TV shows and movies showing valiant officers and dedicated doctors rushing into harm’s way.
There are not, however, many TV shows made showing Family Case Managers doing the exact same things. “Individuals who choose this career do so because it is a calling. This is not just a job,” says Denise Burton. She wishes more people recognized the dedication of the caseworkers and DCS staff who are also exposed to dangerous situations, infectious diseases, and also miss holidays, birthdays, and special events.
Burton is the Local Office Director for the Indiana Department of Child Services office in Decatur County. Each county in the state has one office director and, like her other 91counterparts, she’s charged with maintaining the “big picture of meeting family needs, child needs, and reaching positive outcomes.”
“These [DCS staff] are individuals who are dedicated to helping others. Because of the nature of what we do, that positivity is not always what is perceived. We are dedicated and make huge sacrifices every day. We experience secondary trauma, we leave emotionally exhausted each night and we want to see good outcomes.”
Make no mistake, her tone is clear and Denise is not complaining about the work at all. Nor do her colleagues. Burton has been with DCS since 1991. Before that time, she worked in Indianapolis for the Family Life Education Program (currently “Family Works”). It was one of the first programs in Indiana to work toward keeping families together and not just separating or siphoning members away.
In addition to “big picture” case management, Burton is responsible for her teammates, staffing, and keeping cases moving forward. “I greet everyone each morning. I’m making sure they have what they need. I’m looking at data reports to see where we’re at and identifying challenges and what is causing it,” she says.
If you speak to Burton, it likely won’t take long for her to gravitate toward thinking about the office’s productivity. “We’re looking at practices and how we can make them more productive and lean. If we’re not doing something helpful, we look at how to make impactful changes,” she says. This includes making sure kids in therapy or placement are in the right ones and families in programs are having their needs met.
“I think it’s hard for the public to see our dedication as our role has been sensationalized so much. Our own families get to see it because they see us upset at night after a stressful day, or not making it home in time for birthdays and special moments because we are busy meeting the needs of those families we are serving, says Burton.
After 30 years in the child protection profession, Burton could retire soon. “But I have no desire to leave this agency,” she says. A claim she credits to the positive direction DCS Director Terry Stigdon has set forth now for the agency. “I think under Director Stigdon and regional managers and other staff, we are in a better place than I’ve ever seen us. I’m excited about how dedicated we are to serving children and families. I’m rejuvenated and energized about where we are heading.”
She’s also seen the positive changes partners like CACSEI have made in the last ten years.
“We used to have inexperienced caseworkers talking to kids, doing interviews, being revictimized with multiple interviews. We would have compromised or incomplete interviews. With the advent of CACSEI, we know when we bring a child there that highly trained individuals will ensure we strive for one interview with everyone present.
“This job takes passion. If you don’t have it, you don’t make it very long,” she says.
“We want to celebrate successes and everything we do is helping families reach goals so we never have to knock on their door again. It’s our job to lift them up and support them so they’re in a better place than when we became involved,” says Burton.