By Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4) – They’ve seen the worst of humanity and now child welfare workers in Colorado are asking lawmakers for help.

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Almost three years after the state began hiring nearly 600 additional child welfare workers to handle a skyrocketing number of cases, it’s facing a new crisis — an alarming exodus of caseworkers so traumatized by what they see. Forty percent leave the profession after just two years.

“I’ve smelled burning flesh on toddlers from scalding water. I’ve listened to children describe in detail how they were sexually assaulted. I’ve been followed home by clients and I’ve had knives held at me,” Becky Zal-Sanchez told a House committee.

(credit: CBS)

She’s among hundreds of child welfare workers the state is losing every year under the weight of staggering caseloads, unimaginable trauma, and little support.

Rebecca Meyers says the suffering of the kids is the hardest.

“Hearing the kids recount their stories, seeing the terror in their innocent eyes and reading the facts in their files was excruciating,” Meyers said.

She, Zal-Sanchez and Stephanie Brinks have spent 12 years combined as child welfare workers, paying an extraordinary price to help Colorado’s most vulnerable children.

“One weekend I started crying,” said Brinks. “And I couldn’t stop. I could barely get up off the floor or out of bed.”

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(credit: CBS)

The high turnover is costing the state, which pays for training, at least $680,000 a year. But Representative Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, says it also means kids stay in the system longer.

“Certainly by not addressing it, it is a money loss to the taxpayer, but more importantly to the kids in the system,” Nordberg said. “When you have caseworker turnover, that certainly affects that permanency option, that reunification option. So we owe it to them to get this addressed.”

Nordberg and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, are sponsors of a bill that would create a task force charged with developing programs aimed at caring for those who care the most defenseless.

Singer is a former caseworker himself.

Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont (credit: CBS)

“This is the anniversary of the first fatality I had to deal with. This bill will hopefully make things a little bit easier to give us an opportunity to find new ways to save our state dollars but also save the lives of the kids of Colorado,” Singer said.

Metropolitan State University has donated the space and administrative costs of running the task force so there is no cost to the state.

The bill passed committee 10-3.

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Shaun Boyd is CBS4’s political specialist. She’s a veteran reporter with more than 25 years of experience. Follow her on Twitter @cbs4shaun.