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Child Welfare Workers: The Unspoken First Responder - By Brenna Vidal

Updated: April 23, 2021

“A 59-year-old state welfare worker died Thursday of injuries she received from a beating more than four months ago while attempting to remove a 2-year-old from his abusive father’s custody” (Glanton, 2018).

Her name was Pamela Sue Knight. Prior to her tragic death, she was in therapy for her injuries. Injuries that were so severe, the physicians were teaching her how “to communicate using eye movements”, and had her engaged in physical therapy in hope that she would “regain movement in her arms and legs”. Pamela is one of numerous cases where child welfare workers were injured physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, some resulting in death.

As I write this I could tell you of stories where I have had mothers hold their children hostage in their home for 10 days while on a cocaine binge. Parents who have lunged at me in court and had to be pulled off of me by the bailiffs. I have had co-workers blamed for the death of a toddler, murdered by their parents. And, I have seen too many of these co-workers quit, or experience burnout by the effects of primary and secondary post traumatic stress.

The world of child welfare is taboo. It does not happen, no one talks about it, and no one sees it. Child welfare workers are the unspoken first responder.

In the Communications Act of 1934 the term “first responder” is not used. Instead, it is defined as “Public Safety Entity” which “means an entity that provides public safety services” (Parker, 2013). In fact, this definition, and a variety of similar ones, can be seen throughout history, as per “The Legal Definition of ‘First Responders’” in The National Academies Press. This includes, The Homeland Security Act of 2002, Homeland Security Directive 2003, as well as a variety of laws passed in 2002 by Congress for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA stated a “Public Safety Entity” is a “Federal, State, and local government and nongovernmental emergency public safety, fire, law enforcement, emergency response, emergency medical, and related personnel, agencies, and authorities” (Parker, 2013).

First Responders respond first to the scene of a crime or emergency: manmade or natural. When many are running away, first responders are running towards, but what about the children? Who runs towards them? “For every soldier that is traumatized abroad there are 10 children victimized in their own homes” (Kolk, 2015). In Michael W. Corrigan and Dr. Robert Foltz’s “Thank You, Child Welfare First Responders!” (2017), he explains child welfare workers, or child welfare first responders, as being the “life support” for children going through a “hurricane” and “constant state of trauma”. This “life support” is a total emotional investment of the child welfare worker - the type of individual who literally gives the shirt off of their back to a three year old boy who was just removed from his inebriated mother’s custody as he walked up the highway alone while she was passed out in an abandoned building. The child welfare workers provide support not only to the children, but to the biological parents, relatives, nonrelatives, and foster homes. They are responsible for legal representation of the case, as well as being a resource for residential treatment, juvenile justice programs, food, clothing, shelter, medical, and psychological needs. They love all of their children they are assigned to protect, even when being assigned typically two to three times the recommended caseload limits.

One of my cases: two boys, 10 and 11 years old, saw me so often that they became so bonded with me and started to refer to me as mom. They lived in a group home separated from their little sisters who were already adopted at 1 and 2 years old. Child welfare workers are completely selfless individuals “who actively choose, every single day, to sacrifice some of their own state of balance and peace of mind, to help this community grow stronger and safer” (Buncombe County Government, 2019).

A child welfare first responder, Brittany Plamann, and division manager, Melissa Blom, interviewed by CBS News (2019) stated “it’s not only hard work, its heart work”,“there are things you just - you can’t fathom”, and “there’s definitely doubt. Am I doing the right thing?”. In 2017 alone, more than a quarter of the 1,720 children who died from abuse and neglect were in the care of Child Protection Services (CPS). In February 2012, child welfare worker Elizabeth Griffin-Hall made a horrific 911 call, which ultimately ended with a biological father killing himself and his two sons with explosives, in front of her. He burnt his house down with himself and the children inside, and locked Ms. Hall out. “When she pleads for police to be sent to the home [moments before the house catching fire], the 911 dispatcher says officers only get sent to life threatening situations” (Keneally & Stebner, 2012). Ms. Hall was invested in these children and knew something was wrong when the father locked her out of the home, but she does not have a badge, or the authority to break down doors. Nor does she have the ability to protect herself with fireproof turn out (bunker coat and pants) or a gun.

She has a clipboard and a pen, and now is “suffering from grave emotional trauma” as she watched two boys that she was assigned to protect, be burnt to death in the arms of their “crazed father.”

All first responders suffer from a variety of effects that are “...a known problem; the high rates of Post Traumatic Stress, heart attack, suicide and other stress-based issues...” (YFFR, 2019). In 2008, suicides took a turn for the worse and began to increase among all protective service workers. The Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated that “occupation can largely define a person's identity, and psychological risk factors for suicide, such as depression and stress, can be affected by the workplace” (Krisberg, 2015). Like many other first responders, child welfare workers are given limited resources: peer to peer counseling, hotlines, and powerpoints that say “self-care” all over them without explanation. However, with the constant state

of crisis and trauma these workers live in, having time to eat without doing something work related is barely a possibility. Ultimately, the majority of child welfare first responders experience symptoms of fatigue, burnout, and emotional, psychological, mental, and physical exhaustion. But does it end at the symptoms? Doreen Kane is an example of the overall psychological injury and exhaustion that went too far. Working in Paramus, New Jersey as a caseworker supervisor, she shot herself within her office, taking her own life (Eustachewich, 2018).

Constantly getting beaten with a tsunami of trauma, exhaustion, and lack of support, child welfare workers are stuck in a riptide and are not even given the opportunity to tread water. “According to Erika Tullberg in her webinar called Building Resilience Among Child Welfare Staff one of the first symptoms of secondary trauma is a loss of perspective and critical thinking skills” (Martin, 2011). In other words, the people the world is putting in charge of caring and protecting the vulnerable children, are unable to utilize necessary skills to keep them safe in the first place. “It’s like living in LA and forgetting that the air is filled with smog” (Martin, 2011). The child welfare workers are being pushed to the point of responding to the everyday stress of the job with a “defeat response”. This is defined as “nature’s way of removing you from the picture so you don’t use up communal resources” (McGonigal, 2016). This response promotes social isolation, depression, and suicide. It is the same way burned out EMTs, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other firsts responders respond without the proper tools. “They shut down the part that sees pain, suffering, and death, to protect themselves from seeing too much” (McGonigal, 2016).

The burnt out first responders respond to humans as objects and procedures rather than human beings and children.

Many child welfare agencies are aware of the epidemic. There is a push to focus on timeliness and not quality, a push to not ask questions and just get it done before its past a policy deadline, a push to make recommendations that affect lives of children, but be quiet when the court over rules those recommendations, a push to clean up their colleagues messes and still manage their own, and a push to put all personal problems aside to focus on their job around the clock (Martin, 2011). Almost all child welfare worker positions are on-call, and they work holidays, weekends, and even at 2am when the rest of the world is sleeping. Child welfare workers become trained in putting out the biggest fire, and only oiling the squeaky wheel. They become numb, lacking purpose or direction (Kolk, 2015). If they have reached the point of burnout already, and are responding in a “defeat response,” the child welfare first responders have thus created a psychological shield to defend against stress, which can interfere with the ability to find purpose and satisfaction (McGonigal, 2016). They are rarely given the opportunity to feel the positive effects of their work, let alone take time and recognize the importance of practicing self care, or calling a peer. They are overworked so much that they “hope ‘no news is good news’ from their other crisis cases - until there is bad news, which may then be too late” (Corrigan & Foltz, 2017).

With this lack of opportunity to thrive, the child welfare first responders begin to wither. This withering is contagious, like the plague, and impacts the children and families the workers are responsible for. It has been noticed that the child welfare workers who have a “burnt out practice” have incomplete investigations, miss critical information to determine if a child is safe in a home, become disengaged, and are likely to make inaccurate decisions - leaving children in unsafe situations (Martin, 2011). When it comes to finding a solution to help the family rebuild, child welfare workers create ‘copy and paste’ case plans, which are goals for the parents to get their children back, to save time. These case plans and management style may not actually pertain to the family specifically, and therefore are less likely to realistically help. Finally, child welfare workers who are running on empty, are less likely to find relatives and nonrelatives to take the children and keep them in their original school. Thus, traumatizing the child a second and third time by removing them from the familiarity of their everyday lives and putting them into the foster care system, which is already overflowing and past capacity.

Why is all of this important? “Hurt people hurt other people” (Kolk, 2015).

In the most layman of terms; law enforcement enforces the law, emergency medical services (EMS) provide emergency medical services, and firefighters fight fires. Child welfare workers are responsible for the child’s welfare, including the child’s safety, permanency (permanent family-based living situations), and wellbeing. The child welfare first responders are responsible for the child’s life. Four year old Riyla Wilson disappeared from the house while under the supervision of the

state child-welfare agency (Canedy, 2003). She was later presumed dead and her killer charged with murder by confession. Two year old Jordan Belliveu was found murdered by his mother. After the Sheriff’s Office stated the child protective investigators ``failed to identify the active danger threats occurring within the household that were significant, immediate, and clearly observable”. Florida State Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell stated “policies were not followed, communication throughout the process was poor, and several clear warning signs were missed” (O’Donnell, 2019). An unnamed 11 year old was reported dead after commiting suicide while in CPS’s care, as recent as last year (Walser, 2019).

So many young lives are gone, but it is not to say that the exhaustion, trauma, and burnout of child welfare workers were the only factor in these childrens’ deaths. For the purpose of clarification, there are many hands in the figurative pot. Four year old Noah Cuatro, a child of the Los Angeles child welfare system, died in the home of his unsafe biological parents after the child welfare workers objected to him being returned. Despite the workers efforts to get him re-removed, it was too late (Stiles, 2019). No matter the outcome, each story has its own unfortunate ending. Each tragic story not only changed a family’s life forever, but is another weight on the chest of a child welfare first responder. That is the job. That is a child welfare first responder: care for those who cannot care for themselves, and take on the weight of everyone else’s adversity. No matter how many hardships are witnessed or heard of, no matter how many abused and neglected children are seen, and no matter how many stories have untold endings, CPS is expected to keep moving forward and continuously perform at 110% without adaptations or strides in how the child welfare system functions.

“From Awareness to Action” was the motto at the 2019 Safety and Health Conference for the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association (FFCA, 2019). To translate, the FFCA took ‘do not bring up problems without solutions’ to heart and began to find firefighters solutions. Child welfare first responders need solutions. Take time to Google search “child protection services safety and health conference 2019”.

Go ahead. Stop reading.

Nothing comes up. There are conferences for child welfare workers. However, these conferences review safety protocols, tell child welfare workers how to write better reports, support their families better, and give suggestions for becoming more timely in paperwork processing. All very important talking points. But, if you have a child welfare first responder seeing a child and family as an “object” due to burnout and a defeat response, why would they want to support the “object” more? Why would they want to protect an “object” to the best of their abilities? The child welfare workers cannot even protect themselves from the emotional, mental, spiritual, psychological, and physical damage the job causes them.

“No child should die because a DCFS worker fails to perform his or her job well. Excuses about case overload, insufficient training, and ‘burnout’ are never good enough when a child is harmed because a welfare worker missed the signals” (Glanton, 2018).

When a firefighter misses signals of smoke patterns and how a fire was breathing there is a flashover. When a police officer misses signals of a frantic civilian playing with his side compartment in his car door on a vehicle stop, there is a shooting. Missed signals kill. Like a missile detection system, first responders detect harm and react. If the missile detection system is missing signals, it is fixed from within, mechanically, to become more accurate and prevent devastation. The “key to healing is to understand how the human body works” (Kolk, 2015). First responders need to have a sense of agency, the feeling that they are in control of their life and know where they stand. This starts with interoception and awareness body based feelings. K.T. Sancken, a child welfare first responder, speaks of “cases so intense that they both thrill and scared her” (2015). The greater that awareness, the greater the potential to control one’s own life. Knowing what is felt inside is the first step to knowing why. To become aware of the changes in one’s inner and outer environment, allows one to learn to mobilize and manage the changes effectively (Kolk, 2015).

In June 2019, Maine State Senator, William Diamond, expressed his frustration in the child welfare system that he has been focused on for nearly two decades, and began pushing for a bill that would provide a long term commission to study the problems within his states CPS’s department (CBS News, 2019). “But how can we take what appear to be more demanding trauma-informed system-based approaches if the clinicians, administrators, caseworkers, and staff have far too much to do already? That is the question,” (Corrigan & Foltz, 2017).

Provide resilience training, support, and respect. Teach them how to “mitigate the adverse effects of cumulative stress and vicarious traumatization that causes poor performance” (YFFR, 2019). That is the answer.

Give child welfare first responders tools that allow them to realize they have more than a clipboard and pen. Allow child welfare workers to be prepared with a “fully accessible support system” and skill set for “processing the inevitable stress of a career in emergency services, building mental, physical and emotional resilience, and enhancing optimal levels of job performance from decision making to tactical skills” (YFFR, 2019).

A Stanford University study in 2013 revealed that stress is actually a predictor for those who feel they have a meaningful life, and that how stressed one is has been seen as a “barometer” of how engaged they are in relationships that are meaningful (McGonigal, 2016). Child welfare first responders need stress, however, they need to process it with a different mindset. Research shows, those who believe stress is enhancing are less depressed, satisfied with their lives, have more energy, less health problems, are overall happier, more productive, and see stress as a “challenge,” allowing them to have the ability to cope with it and find meaning in it (McGonigal, 2016). This is specific to all first responders, child welfare workers included, because it changes their view on anxiety, allowing them to perceive it as helpful versus harmful which creates less burnout. When child welfare first responders stop responding with a “defeat response” and are given the proper tools, they can then learn to utilize responses like the “challenge response” and “tend and befriend response.” The “challenge response” is a stress response that promotes recovery, learning, and growing from experience through a higher level of DHEA (a ‘feel good’ steroid hormone). This response can increase motivation, self action, promote recovery, positive emotions, better performance under pressure, and better decision making. The “tend and befriend response” motivates connection through high levels of oxytocin release. This response can increase courage, increase caregiving ability, strengthen social relationships, enhance empathy and intuition, and encourage one to connect with their support system (McGonigal, 2016).

Would children of the child welfare system benefit from a child welfare first responder with a defeat response or a challenge response and tend and befriend response?

Are there tools that can be utilized to teach this solution of resiliency, response type, and agency to the child welfare system? Yes! An example is a nonprofit organization:

YogaShield® Yoga for First Responders® (YFFR) has a mission of bringing yoga philosophy, through somatic and cognitive exercises, to practical applications for first responders and military around the country. We will do this through an official protocol which is safe, effective and consistent and provides a systematic skill set to a known problem; the high rates of Post Traumatic Stress, heart attack, suicide and other stress-based issues in the first responder population. In addition, the YFFR protocol builds mental and physical resilience leading to optimal levels of performance on and off the job (YFFR 2019).

This is an example of a tool that is adaptable, like the ever changing, child welfare system. Professor Richard Blake at Seton Hall University once said “Do not get into social work if you like things that stay the same. Policy, procedure, and practice, are always changing, and therefore so will your job description” (Blake, 2013). The child welfare system would benefit from a tool such as YFFR that is “integral to its initial and unique system and values yet continues to evolve” and “will adjust to the ever-changing environment of a public safety department and make accommodations to successfully implement yoga training in environments where it has never been seen before”. The child welfare system would benefit from a tool, ever changing, like itself that teaches resiliency, and is proactive instead of reactive. Child welfare first responders need proactive training to be able to grow from adversity and have an effective recovery (YFFR, 2019). This will allow them to begin to prevent burnout and save children and families more effectively.

Imagine child welfare first responders being able to react and make decisions with optimal levels of performance. They can address what is working well with a family, what safety concerns they are worried about, and what they believe needs to happen next to prevent danger or an emergency. Picture child welfare first responders practicing agency and being able to preventively reflect on their practice as a child welfare first responder for the past week to effectively change future response time in said practice. Envision child welfare workers being able to feel that they are equipped and have the opportunity to do their job everyday to the best of their ability. These child welfare first responders have a sense of purpose when they lay their heads down on their pillow. This is all obtainable if a hand is put out to those who put their hands out for all of the children and families facing adversity. Not only should it happen, but it is detrimental to the lives of all children and families in the child welfare system without these additional tools. Child welfare workers are the unspoken first responder facing emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, and psychological exhaustion, not only putting themselves at risk of injury or death, but children and families across the globe. '

Proactive resiliency training is the answer. Saving one child welfare worker saves about fifty children and their families. Is that a solution to deny?

Written by YFFR Philanthropy Director Brenna Vidal

Brenna is honored to serve as the Philanthropy Director for Yoga for First Responders. Her relationship to the organization dates back to 2018. Brenna is responsible for designing, implementing, and coordinating an organization-wide donor relations and stewardship system that consistently promotes interaction with and recognition of donors at all levels.

Brenna’s motivation for supporting the mission of Yoga for First Responders comes in part from her familial ties to military and first responders. Most immediate; her brother is in the army, father is a retired marine, and husband is a firefighter. Brenna longs to understand the warrior mindset and pushes herself to train with any opportunity that is presented.

Brenna has a history of strength, mobility, and resiliency dating back to competitive dance and karate as a child. Her love grew in college, not just for physical health, but emotional, spiritual, and mental health as well. She earned her Bachelor’s of Social Work, and Bachelor’s of Art in Psychology through Seton Hall University. Through social work Brenna focused on public health as well as government and nonprofit programs and policy. Shortly after college, she served as a Certified Child Welfare Case Manager for almost 4 years. Brenna has also earned her 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) Certification through Yoga Alliance. Brenna is an Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) graduate as well, obtaining her Personal Trainer Certification (CPT) in 2020. As well, she will obtain her Nutrition Coach Certification (CNC) through NASM by 2021.


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