My first case as a social worker involved child abuse, and the father of an infant had inflicted a spiral fracture of the tibia and fibula on his child. He and the mother ended up losing their parental rights to the child, but they would go on to have other children together. It was a powerful lesson in the ability of child protection to intervene in the life of a child. But, we must understand, it is one life at a time.
Not long after meeting that child, I would meet another. He was a boy of about 8 years old who was found early one Sunday morning, naked and wandering between garbage cans by a local beach. He was in a dissociative state. The police officer who found him brought him to the ER and showed us the boy’s emaciated body with evidence of old burn marks. It would be weeks before we learned who he was.
I thought of these two cases recently when I was looking at autopsy photos of another case. Our work in and around child protection is a world that few in our society truly understand. We are exposed to the individual horrors that one person can inflict on the vulnerable. We see things that most people would not even want to talk about.
I did my first practicum 40 years ago, and I am still proud to call myself a social worker. I am still excited by what we do. Yet I have seen social workers leave the profession because the work got too much. I have also seen workers who have stayed but shouldn’t have as they become bitter and toss their power about as retribution for the harms that they have seen.
Vicarious trauma is the right term for it, yet the term creates a sense of distance as though it is somehow a little less harmful than “real” trauma. The trauma of being a witness is real. As social workers, we speak of it often when we talk about how children are affected by witnessing domestic violence. We spoke of it when we saw the children being led from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. We again speak of it when we see people exposed to violence such as the survivors of the Columbine High School shootings, the killing of the police officers in Las Vegas just a few days ago or the cold blooded murder of 3 RCMP officers in New Brunswick recently.
In child protection, we must also acknowledge that we too are the witnesses and the victims of the violence that we experience in our work. We take it home. It lives within us. Too often we here about self care and then go back to work. To be really good at this work, we must be really engaged in being healthy and hold on to our reasons for coming into the profession. I am honored to teach social work and listen to new students each year talk about entering social work in order to help people and make a difference. If we cannot hold on to our health, we are unlikely to hold onto truly making a difference.
In order to manage vicarious trauma within ourselves, we must be willing to listen at what is going on within. Our work can change our world view to one where safety is not seen as the norm but rather risk is seen that way. As social workers, we might also remember that in the course of our day to day work we are exposed to a skewed sample. Largely speaking, people who are doing well don’t come to see us.
We must also advocate for work environments where talking about the traumas that we see and how they affect us is seen as not only ok, but also as desirable. This includes being allowed to express our grief and anger so that we can normalize not only what we see but how it affects us. A self care plan is essential, and this is nothing new. Although, I continue to see far too many colleagues forgetting themselves, and helping ourselves is also essential part of helping clients.