Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Stress, Your Worker, and You
A conversation with child welfare social workers

by Mellicent Blythe

As a resource parent, you've seen first-hand the effects chronic trauma can have on a child's health and well-being. And as discussed elsewhere in this issue, your own functioning can be affected by exposure to children's traumatic histories.

But what about social workers? Unfortunately, they are also at risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), a condition which can affect their professional and personal lives.

You're not responsible for taking care of your social worker or "fixing it" when they have STS. However, understanding how STS can contribute to common frustrations between workers and families may reduce your stress and help you partner more effectively with your worker.

To get a first-hand perspective, we talked with two former DSS social workers about ways STS affected them. (Their names have been changed.)

Did you ever experience signs of STS?
Ann: Yes. I was a supervisor for years. Avoidance was always a huge one for me and my workers, especially writing case notes describing a visit. To write those notes you had re-live it, and sometimes it was too painful.

Eventually I realized I had to document difficult experiences right away, just push through it. Otherwise I would put it off.

It's easy to recognize that CPS social workers see horrible stuff. But foster care, adoption, and licensing workers see really sad and tragic things, too, especially placement disruptions. And they have a relationship with the child and with the birth and foster families. I felt a ton of responsibility if it was not only "my" kid that had a disruption but also "my" family --a family I had found and trained and supported. Sometimes I felt really let down, and it was hard to figure out how to maintain an ongoing relationship with them. I'd be going out to see them about a different child and re-live my emotions about the disruption.

Something I never really thought about that's common is the guilt--the apologizing profusely even if what I did was completely warranted. Instead of focusing on what I had done well, I'd fixate on the negatives.

And there's the emotional exhaustion. There would be times when a child or parent would have great news, and you couldn't get to that happy place with them because you had dealt with a disruption all day, or notified a parent you were terminating their rights. You just can't celebrate the way you'd like to.

Zoe: I can definitely see myself in the hyper-vigilance. Sometimes when my on-call phone rang I would right away have that stress reaction.

I also can relate to looking for that "quick fix." With certain families the needs are so large, you feel overwhelmed. You spend a lot of time trying to put out small fires, so you may not be working towards that permanency plan and outcome that you're supposed to be focusing on.

And some days I felt very heavy, just a sense of fatigue and being worn down. Sometimes I just had to take a mental health day.

Are there other ways in which traumatic stress affected you or your co-workers?
Zoe: I saw others at my agency showing signs. At first you think, "I'm not going to be that person. I'm going stay motivated. I won't be overwhelmed." And at times I accomplished that. But as cases increased it became harder.

If CPS goes out and those kids have to come into care, you don't have space to deal with your feelings. You have to be with that family and do what you need to do. You have to push all those feelings aside and do the work.

But we're not robots. Even though parents can be abusive or neglectful, they still love the child and the child still loves them. We know we're hurting that family, even if it's the right thing to do.

Ann: Sometimes it almost feels like you have PTSD. I was at a fancy dinner on vacation and a cell phone at the table next to us went off. I had a visceral, physical reaction. I got shaky, my heart sped up. I felt intense anxiety, I felt sick to my stomach. I realized it was the same ring I used for my old on-call phone. When that phone rang, it meant something was wrong and I was probably going out at night, usually to a remote location. I never knew what I was walking into. That is scary and can wear you down.

What would you say to resource parents about workers and STS?
Ann: Knowing about traumatic stress may open a conversation. A foster parent might say, "I'm feeling some symptoms of stress, and I'm wondering if you are too." Talking about it can be a way to build partnership.

Social workers should never seek support from those we're supposed to be supporting. But sometimes it can be a reciprocal relationship.

It's also important for foster and adoptive parents to build their own network of support. Your social worker cannot do it all. Do they wish they could? Absolutely. But they can't.

What should you do? Prioritize. Ask: is this something I need to reach out about right now, or can I go to my informal support network? What supports do I have to help me process and de-compress? Obviously you have to be mindful of confidentiality, but do you have people you can talk to about how you're feeling?

But it's a balance. Always share any experiences or symptoms you're having that might lead to a disruption. Be willing to own it, to say early on, "I need some support." Rather than waiting until you're at the breaking point and then saying, "If he wipes his feces on the wall one more time, I'm out of here!" And your social worker is thinking, "What? I didn't know that was going on!"

Agencies have protocols, like needing to give two weeks' notice for a move. This is so important. Unless someone's safety is at risk, those protocols are in place to protect everyone.

Whatever we can do to reduce the trauma for that child, it's also going to reduce the stress and anxiety for the resource family and for the social worker.

People don't realize when we say we don't have another placement for the child, that means the child is sleeping on the floor at the agency. That's not good for anyone, especially the child.

Zoe: Don't forget to tell your workers about the good things! They need to hear about successes in kids' and families' lives--this reminds them of why they do this work, and that they're making a difference.

Mellicent Blythe is a Clinical Associate Professor at the UNC-CH School of Social Work.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~