The truth about child protective workers

When you work in social services, part of the wear and tear on your psyche is knowing that mainstream people only feel what you feel when a tragedy occurs. Three weeks later, the news cycle completes, and people go back to being desensitized and unaware. Only horrible atrocities seem to garner our collective attention.

Righteous anger and outrage are reasonable responses to the death of a child. The simple truth is that EVERY SINGLE DAY, systems fail our most vulnerable. It’s very tempting to look for someone to blame. It’s almost expected that some professional must have committed an unconscionable act of neglect or shown gross incompetency.

Rarely is this the case. It’s the systems themselves that fail.

How does any right-thinking person read that well over 12,000 reports of child abuse and neglect went without investigation in 2016 and not demand that the system be overhauled? They were not investigated because every day DHHS is forced to triage calls because they don’t have enough workers to respond to them all.

I have enormous respect and empathy for child protective and adoption workers. Their jobs are a set up. Period. It is quite literally impossible to do what is expected of them in a 40-hour week (or indeed, in 60) and the job is an absolutely perfect recipe for burn out.

The turnover rate of child protective workers is roughly 18 months. The job eats your soul, ravages your sleep and destroys your health. You get to get up close and personal with some of the worst atrocities in our culture and be unsupported in so doing.

Child protective workers do not even receive individual clinical supervision (arguably one of the most supportive and sustaining aspects of working in social services). Why don’t they get that? Because we are not willing to pay for it.

We chronically understaff DHHS and assign caseloads that are unmanageable. We are constantly training new workers (a huge investment) only to watch their health decline and sooner or later, most leave out of sheer survival necessity.

Child protective workers are heroes. They are some of the strongest members of our society, doing thankless work for low pay, under deplorable conditions and with the added benefit of being at risk for vicarious and secondary trauma every day they’re on the job.

Those who work in the trenches are there for very personal reasons. The fact that they do what they do out of love, empathy, and compassion should celebrated. Instead, it’s exploited and occasionally we want to crucify those on the front lines because it’s much easier to do that then it is to invest in a new system that actually fulfills even our current state mandates.

The mythology that child protective workers take kids from healthy families is a complete farce that is supported nowhere in research or factual accounts. It exists only anecdotally and it is nearly always a tale told to compensate for personal failures in parenting.

Most of the child protective workers I’ve known are desperately seeking resources and options for families who are going through hell and for children who need safe living arrangements. Again, we have this myth in our culture that help is available to all those who need it.

It’s not. The fact that this is true for children who survive abuse and neglect should be causing all of us to lose sleep.

Call me jaded. Three weeks and it’ll be back to business as usual, but my hope is that if you should know or come across a child protective worker, that you offer them your profound thanks for their incredible service.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.