Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Failed to Death Commentary, Part I: Caseworker Burnout

Last year Channel 9 News, in conjunction with the Denver Post, presented a series of news stories called “Failed to Death” that brought to light the system’s inability to protect children from abuse and neglect. I was so relieved at the news teams' courage for speaking up for the sake of the children. This blog series pays homage to those reporters who were brave enough to speak out against a system that is failing these kids to death.

Recently, I spoke at a conference where the topic addressed resiliency in victims of abuse. What I have witnessed over the years is that families will thrive when you incorporate the five protective factors: nurturing and attachment, knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development, parental resiliency, social connection, and concrete support for parents. Most parents don’t start out wanting to hurt their children but many have grown up in abuse themselves and have never had healthy habits role modeled to them. I have taught a court ordered parenting class for almost fifteen years and I can count on one hand the parents that didn’t care and had no business raising children—all of the others did. What does that tell us about how we are approaching this critical issue? Maybe—just maybe—we need to repackage our services to families and start looking at treatment as healthy and right for them rather than viewing the help as a punishment. They don’t know what they don’t know…until we educate them. How many times have we heard that knowledge is power?

For years, I have proposed that we order the entire family to treatment when Child Protective Services becomes involved or when children witness family violence, as family systems are much like ecosystems…when you change one part of the environment by ordering only one parent to treatment the entire unit becomes imbalanced—and it doesn't work! There are many other advantages to mandating the entire family to treatment besides the obvious—good mental health. This series will share how we can reduce caseworker burnout, save time and money in the court system, take the guesswork out of mandatory arrests for the police officers and redirect child abuse convictions through education—all while achieving the goals to build healthier families.

Today, we will address caseworker burnout and the negative impact their decisions can have on the family system. The emotional tolls experienced by workers who have to cope with extreme exposure to child abuse is horrendous and could significantly traumatize these professionals subjected to such atrocities. It’s no wonder the caseworker burnout rate is between 1-5 years. Therefore, when families get caseworkers that have been serving in their positions for 15-20 years, goals of customer service and family reunification might be low priority or even nonexistent.

At a conference, a caseworker supervisor indicated to me that 35 positions had become available and that the department had to hire and train new personnel to fill the vacancies. When I challenged why the money was being allocated for new caseworkers rather than revitalizing the ones already in place the supervisor frustratingly retorted, “That's a great question.” What I sensed from the conversation was that caseworker development is much like puppy mills where we produce an over abundance of professionals, place them in extremely untenable and harsh conditions, mistreat them and then release them—permanently tainting these fundamentally caring individuals. I have seen these highly educated and motivated people quit and work as bartenders and bus drivers. They enter this field because they have a passion for kids and then the system breaks their spirit. My recommendation is that instead of taking the dwindling dollars to unnecessarily train new personnel, use the resources to protect our most precious commodities—the children and the superheroes who save them. We could create team-building programs, respite retreats, better collaborations and staff appreciation days. Burnout impacts these professionals’ ability to objectively advocate for their clients, which doesn't bode well for the families. In fact, children are needlessly being ripped away from their families and our system is creating deeper levels of trauma—that we have to pay for later when the children grow up. I repeatedly hear from parents that their caseworkers have threatened to take kids away unless they leave their partners. Others have been advised that caseworkers had found a “more suitable” home for their kids. This…is…not…the…goal. The objective is to keep families together. When most caseworkers trained for this field, I’m confident that they wanted to help families, but the inevitable exhaustion and trauma they experience causes significant problems. When I address these solutions in a professional training, the caseworkers wholeheartedly agree that they love their job, but they are tired. This is a solvable issue if we envelop and nurture the invaluable resources that we already have available to us.

In Part II of this series, we will discuss the child-abuse-conviction approach and how it often causes more harm than good. We will provide alternative solutions that could work.

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