Social Worker burnout… not just talk

I read the Minister of Community Services’ recent response to Child Protection Social Workers’ circumstances and the concerns that the Union has identified.

“We want to make sure our social workers are well supported and we believe they are,” – Kelly Regan

I have kept quiet long enough.

I was reluctant to speak out after ending my permanent employment with the Dept. of Community Services for fear that I may jeopardize things if someday I wish to regain employment with the Province. After reading the Minister’s recent comments about the supports in place for our Social Workers, and her absolute lack of concern for their wellbeing, I feel compelled to speak out and likely end all possibility of returning to work for the Provincial government.

I apologize for jumping around a lot, however my thoughts are all over the place as I am so stricken by the lack of empathy, compassion or UNDERSTANDING demonstrated by Kelly Regan.  The practices of our current government and its restructuring have done little but exacerbate an already dire situation.

I’d challenge the Honorable Kelly Regan to go back and conduct exit-interviews with the MANY social workers who left permanent government positions in the last few years (including myself) for jobs with less so-called stability and much lower pay grade before making any further speculation about the support provided to our social workers. In my small office alone I can count 4 of us who did just that during the time immediately surrounding my own resignation. Perhaps it would also be enlightening to spend just a few weeks sitting in the chair of today’s child protection social workers – it wouldn’t take a day to see just how undervalued social workers are.

Social Workers are not well supported

Walking through the offices of the social workers employed in the Honorable Kelly Regan’s riding, might LOOK like we are taking adequate care of our child protection social workers, but I assure you it is all smoke & mirrors. Perhaps the minimum standard of care is being met in Central Region (although I suspect that a little digging will unearth evidence to the contrary) but it is most certainly NOT being met in the rural communities.

When we can say that numbers of cases per social worker are well within the minimum standard it is clear to me that there are two problems with this statement. One, clearly these standards did not take into account the increasingly lengthy process of documentation required, especially for court files; nor the increased travel time since restructuring began. And two, just because the positions are allotted in each area does not mean that those positions are carrying a case load. In many offices there are constant vacancies. And while it saves the tax payer tons of money by not even advertising the positions until they are actually vacant, it adds a significant load to the remaining workers who have no choice but to pick up the slack.

Rural offices see a revolving door of social workers who are putting in their time in order to move to their area of preference (generally the metro region). So not only is there a constant state of flux and vacancies, but the workers do not generally have enough time to get to know their community, resources and clients – and often – more importantly – vice versa, before they move on, or are moved in order to meet a more pressing need.

Rural social workers are required to spend too much time traveling

The straw that broke the camel’s back for rural social workers – who face the unique challenge of living AND practising in the same community – came when offices began to be shut down and positions moved to a “central” office with new boundaries. Perhaps on paper it looks like that works, but when travel time is added to an already heavy and intense caseload, it is simple common sense to know that this will NOT alleviate concerns. There is no possible way that this has not had a negative impact on the service provided to children and families. Response times are inevitably longer. And now the social worker who chose to live just outside of her catchment area in order to avoid such ethical dilemmas as being called to her neighbor’s home, or crossing paths at her grocery store with many of her clients, has lost all ability to take control of that challenge.

I had seriously considered purchasing a home further away, outside of our catchment area, in order to avoid the conflict of living and practicing in the same community. Thankfully, I did not, as I simply would have added a long commute time to the office, while the catchment area had grown to include the community I might have lived in.

Social workers are at risk

Social workers are required to drive their own vehicles and are entering some of the sketchiest of situations. In small rural communities workers’ cars become known as the “welfare” car. Not only does it become difficult to arrive inconspicuously (the neighbors often know whose car it is and what the owner must be doing at the client’s house), but it also means that when out in the community, or even coming and going from ones’ own residence, clients now know their workers’ car (and therefore, address).

When a client threatens your life, and the lawyer’s response is that he should be given another chance because surely it’s not the first time a client has spoken to their social worker that way… as if the vitriol and abusive treatment is somehow acceptable or not important when it happens frequently… and is if there haven’t already been MANY chances…

Prior to seeing my workload increase significantly, which ultimately resulted in the all-too-important documentation to suffer, I was struck by the absolute lack of empathy towards social workers and their team. After calls that required debriefing in order to face the next days, weeks and months of working with a family, were left with that debriefing unmet; with supervisor(s) who were too busy and stressed out by their own demands to provide the necessary support… I chose to hang up my all too short-lived social worker badge for good. Let me be clear, when I chose to uproot my children and move them to a new community I was making a career choice, with every intention of living out my working days with the department.

Working conditions are unsafe.

Working conditions are unsafe for a multitude of reasons. I’d like to see what other professions working with similar levels of volatility have the same high expectations placed on them. Imagine walking unprotected into a home that is known to house guns (or worse yet does, but is not known to), in order to protect the well being of a child. Imagine being just weeks on a job and being sent with absolutely no job specific training (aside from reading a manual) into a home with red flags jumping out everywhere, but not knowing what those flags are let alone having the simple training that would tell you the standard procedures that would prevent the worst.

What if you did not know that something as minor as always parking your car facing out (for quick exit), or never removing your shoes in the client’s home, or always scanning the room and placing yourself in the vicinity that would prevent all paths to the only exit from being blocked? This is labeled as common sense when it is brought up. Yet the only reason you’ve brought it up is because you have witnessed coworkers doing just the opposite of this “common sense” and know that it has never been discussed let alone “trained”.

The majority of new social workers today are coming straight out of university, straight after high school. These social workers with often limited life experience are left on their own to learn most things the hard way and when more outspoken social workers bring these concerns to the floor, concerns are met with “well, this job isn’t for everyone”. Not all workers have the common sense not to get into a client vehicle, but they shouldn’t be left to learn the hard way that the job just isn’t for them. And such instances should be met with training opportunities, not reprimands.

Inadequate training

There is a series of training required of social workers in order to obtain status to act as an Agent of the Dept. This training covers the absolute basics of the job from proper documentation (for court purposes that can in many cases win or lose the file and the ability to protect a child from further harm), to how to practice from a trauma-informed approach, to interview skills and more. Social workers are lucky if they get to start this training before a year of their job has gone by. By this time they have already made countless decisions, answered a multitude of calls by themselves, and written numerous documents and documentation that will be used, in the worst case scenario, in a family court process deciding a child’s future with or without their family.

I put a rush on completing my training because our office was short on qualified agents (who are the only social workers able to act after hours or “on-call”, or able to take a child into care), and I did not even BEGIN my training for a year after starting my job. As it turned out, I had already learned a number of not-recommended processes from co-workers, supervisors, and the files that I had inherited, that I needed to un-learn by the time I went on course.

Lack of this training early on meant that social workers with absolutely no familiarity with a file were (and continue to be I am sure) issuing notices to take children into care. Lacking the in-depth knowledge of a file mean therefore being unable to answer the tough questions in the moment.

I was good at my job. I had a background and life experiences that allowed me to jump in and hit the ground running. Yet I became physically ill due to the strains of my job. I had come to feel that I could do my work to the utmost best of my ability and if one of those grey area decisions came up – even after consulting with my supervisor – if things went wrong, I would be hung out to dry.

Lack of training also means that social workers transport volatile teens, sometimes alone, sometimes with a counterpart with even less training than the “senior” worker on duty. These transports often take hours at a time, and always in privately owned and insured vehicles.

Frustrations and burnout

The most frustrating part of this work, was not the work itself, but not having the resources to offer that families really need to be able to address the concerns and make things better for their children. You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned the work itself. Yes, Child Protection is challenging work. Yes, it can be dangerous, and yes, it often feels thankless. But the real hardships come from the lack of empathy, support and value that is communicated by the employer – the Department of Community Services, Province of Nova Scotia.

It is about time the union spoke out against such conditions much more than before. And it is about time that the government takes a long hard look at an under-resourced, under-supported and clearly under-valued vocation.



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About Trish

social justice advocate, blogger, amateur photographer, reader, cyclist, runner & swimmer, mom of two