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By: Stephanie. Rakoczy, BSW, MSW, LSW
Imagine for a moment you are a police officer on a call in which violence is occurring. The people involved have been reported to have a history of drug use. On your way to this call, you are thinking about the potential dangers, including people who could currently be under the influence of a substance and physically harming others. You find out along the way that among the individuals included in this call are children on the scene who reside in this home. Upon your arrival on this scene, one of the individuals displays a weapon.
Although this scenario doesn’t always occur when you go into a situation, you have been trained and have the means to protect yourself. As a police officer, you are able to carry a gun and sometimes other weapons such as a taser gun and mace. Now imagine you arrive at this scene to discuss how this situation affects the safety of the children. You have no weapon as you did as a police officer, yet the same safety concerns are present. If you have not yet guessed, you are not the police officer—you are a child welfare social worker. You work in some of the most dangerous situations and touch on some of the most vulnerable issues with parents—their children. You do all of this and, yet, you are ultimately defenseless.
Sadly, this situation is more common than one would hope. The concerns in this field became a reality with the death of West Virginia social worker Brenda Yeager, who was sexually assaulted and killed as she made a visit to the home of a family. It can also be seen in the death of Teri Zenner, a social work student from Kansas who was killed while making a routine home visit. Anecdotal observation and discussions with caseworkers reveal that the apparent perceived powerlessness that they feel and the way this job affects their families, coupled with the perception that they have no support or understanding in regard to their job and the work they perform on a daily basis, creates an untenable and intolerable situation for many workers.
Many social workers, administrators, lawmakers, and state policy makers question why there is such a high turnover rate for child welfare employees. The average length of employment in the area of child welfare is said to be approximately one year. Compared to years of social work accomplished in other areas of the field, why is the retention rate of social workers that come into the job with enthusiasm, excitement, and a hope to help someone falling at such drastic rates?
This article will explore the current literature that studies the problem of compassion fatigue in child welfare, what the causes are, the consequences, and what can be done to address the problem.
Compassion fatigue, which can include Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), has been documented fairly frequently and experienced by many child welfare workers. What is not as common, however, is the number of studies that appear to have been completed researching what can be done about this problem. When describing secondary traumatic stress, Nelson-Gardell, Harris, and Deneen (2003) state that STS presents a risk of negative personal psychological consequences. They also describe STS as a reaction in a person who has empathetically listened to the bad things that have happened to other people. Stamm (1999) defined STS, in an article titled Childhood Abuse History, Secondary Traumatic Stress and Child Welfare Workers, as “a syndrome of symptoms nearly identical to PTSD except that exposure to a traumatizing event experienced by one person becomes a traumatizing event for the second person.”
Child welfare work is typically omitted when it comes to being listed as one of the top stressful jobs of society, as evidenced by the lack of media coverage. This can be evidenced by viewing the Web site of a popular television network, ABC, at www.abc2news.com, whose list of most stressful jobs did not even include social worker.
Many researchers attribute this oversight to ignorance about the responsibilities and job duties of a child welfare worker. The Child Welfare League of America (2007) describes the job duties as utilizing the ability to engage families through face-to-face contacts, assessing the safety of children at risk of harm, monitoring case progress, ensuring the essential services and supports are provided, and facilitating the attainment of the desired permanency plan. Each caseworker in the area of child welfare maintains what is known as a caseload and a workload, which is the amount of time that workers devote to direct contact with clients and the time required to perform tasks associated with the families. The Child Welfare League suggests that the maximum number of families that a caseworker works with during a 30-day period is approximately twelve cases. The reality is that caseworkers carry caseloads much higher in number.