By Patricia Wilcox, LCSW
Anyone working in child welfare knows there’s a lot asked of us these days.
We’re being called upon to decrease the use of restraints and seclusion. We want to avoid causing trauma to the individuals we serve. Stress and burnout affect those working in child welfare settings, so staffing shortages occur frequently.
Anecdotally, those agencies championing a trauma-informed culture tend to have higher retention rates, although this has not been formally studied. Trauma-informed care offers guidelines for improving our agency’s culture and our staff’s job satisfaction. Staff cannot treat clients any better than they themselves are treated.
Goals of Trauma-Informed Treatment and Care
Regardless of whether we’re discussing a child served in the welfare system or a staff member, the most fundamental belief is that all behavior makes sense in context. The resulting behavior is a person’s attempt to solve the problem the best way they can in the moment. People are not born with the skills to make it through difficult times. If they have not learned these skills from caretakers, it is our job as helpers to demonstrate and teach them.
Trauma-informed care helps individuals develop a sense of power after a trauma has destroyed their voice. Working with clients collaboratively as partners helps restore that voice. We teach skills and give the individuals we serve a positive experience with another person. This opens the door to an individual in the child welfare system eventually finding a friend, getting along with a boss or falling in love.
This is the science we need to use to engage our staff.
Ways Trauma Affects Child Welfare Professionals
Stressors are many but there are three main ways trauma is affecting our professional staff.
- Vicarious trauma resulting from empathy with the individuals we serve. It’s common for staff to experience the same negative emotions as the individual served after a disappointment. For instance, a child may have five promising visits with a potential foster family, only for the family to suddenly withdraw. Not only is the child heartbroken, but trauma extends to the staff involved as well. Treaters are also affected by the pain of events in the client’s past.
- Loss. In this line of work, staff form bonds with the individuals they help and then those individuals leave the system. We’re often not confident about the child’s future in the new living situation. Staff also lose colleagues, due to turnover. Sometimes, even changing workflows can be difficult.
- Moral dilemmas. The child welfare system is far from perfect. Staff must choose which battles are worth fighting nearly every day and this takes a toll on us.
There’s a saying in our industry that applies to all of us. “If we don’t feed our staff, they will eat the individuals we serve.”
Fixing the child welfare system is a tall order, but we can take steps to support our colleagues now.
This is the time to evaluate your teams’ relationships. Connection with the professional team is an even bigger driver of whether someone stays on the job than regular self-care. Below are some tactics to improve employee engagement.
- Talk! The individuals we serve experience great pain and we can learn from them. It’s important to create a culture in which discussing how the work is affecting you is seen as a strength. Our focus should include not only how difficult the job is, but how it can help one grow as an individual.
- Plan retreats. These aren’t distractions from the job. They are often what sustains people to keep working in child welfare.
- Offer choices. By nature, people want to be asked their opinions and have choice within their job responsibilities. What areas can staff control? Whenever possible, let them choose their hours. Even allowing staff to decorate their own spaces goes a long way.
- Share successes. Some organizations have had success with trauma-informed newsletters that describe winning practices. Decide what you hope to improve, track data and share the results widely.
It’s always a challenge to find the time and money to prioritize staff engagement but it’s so important. Remember, the children we serve are watching to see how we relate to each other!
Patricia Wilcox, LCSW, is the vice president of strategic development at Klingberg Family Centers in New Britain, Connecticut. At Klingberg she was a clinician and the clinical director before obtaining her current position in 2005. She specializes in the treatment of traumatized children and their families and has presented extensively on this topic at several conferences. Wilcox is the creator of the Restorative Approach, a trauma and relationship-based approach to congregate care treatment of children and the author of Trauma Informed Care: The Restorative Approach. She is a trainer for the Risking Connection® trauma training program and an adjunct faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and St. Joseph’s University School of Social Work. Ms. Wilcox was selected as the Social Worker of the Year by National Association of Social Workers – Connecticut (NASW/CT) in 2011.