When Your Heart's in the Right Place

Posted by GVT Admin on Oct 25, 2023 10:33:12 AM

Interview with child protective services employee

Young social work graduates attracted to child protective services love children and want to do all they can to protect them from harm. These new professionals are usually gentle, kindly, empathetic souls who are either grateful for a wonderful, wholesome upbringing or identify with child abuse from their own negative childhood experience. Either way, they relate to children beyond the norm and are eager to help in any way they can. Many of them begin their careers as case workers in Child Protective Services.

High Turnover Rate

However, they don't last long. Child welfare workforce turnover rates are between 23% and 60% annually across private and public child welfare agencies. According to a report by the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement, recruitment and retention of child welfare case workers is a "chronic and apparently intractable problem."

This blog wanted to know why, so we contacted one of our long-time correspondents who has more than 25 years’ experience working in Child Protective Services in Los Angeles. Here's what she said:

GVT: Why do so many young social workers quit Child Protective Services after a short stay? They seem to become disillusioned quickly.

CPS: Young social workers who choose child welfare as their career path are always enthusiastic and dedicated to the children. It's in their nature, I think. But after a few months or years on the job the complexity of human nature begins to crowd out their sincere kindness. The black and white of good and bad begins to gray a bit.

  • Holding the hand of a woman as she sobs after you have terminated her parental rights. 
  • Processing a man’s childhood trauma while interviewing him, after he has violated his five-year-old.
  • And when that child is watching and sees you flinch, she knows that you simply cannot handle it. She will never a say a word to you making it impossible for you to protect her.

This is the world young childcare workers find themselves working in.

GVT: If their love for the children can't see them through, what do they need to learn to stay in child welfare. In other words, what did you need to learn?

CPS: The first thing I needed to learn was how to listen. I was so enthusiastic when I started that I was both a "know it all" and impatient. I wanted all the problems solved now, and only I knew how to do it. Both beliefs were wrong and led to frustration and youthful incompetence. My clients and I suffered from my mistakes. It took me a little while to learn to listen with empathy and patience.

GVT: Was it hard when you started out to be gentle with the victims but tough with the offenders?

CPS: One of the hardest lessons to learn as a CPS case worker is to support the child like a nurse or a nanny and at the same time protect the child like a policeman or a probation officer. It's quite a simultaneous emotional juggling act.

  • Sometimes you need to be hard.
  • Sometimes you need to be practical.
  • Sometimes you need to make medical decisions.
  • Sometimes you need to be savvy and strategic.
  • Sometimes you need to make important, life-altering decisions.

There will be high caseloads and incompetent service providers, stressed coworkers, and frazzled managers. On particularly bad days you will be the incompetent, stressed, and frazzled one. And all this after being thrown into the deep end of the pool about two weeks out of college.

GVT: Whoa. The turnover rate is getting a little clearer.

CPS: I tell my students,

"Remember, you are the courageous one merely for choosing this work. Whether you are on the job or not, you will never not be a child protective social worker…that awareness stays with you. You need to stay strong and know the core of yourself. You must fight to stay soft. This work can change you in ways that are not positive. You need to be mindful and purposeful about staying open to the world."


Topics: Family and Child Welfare

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