The Importance Of Decreasing Burnout Among Child Welfare Workers


Child Protective Services (CPS) is a government funded agency that was put in place to protect children against abuse, neglect, and endangerment. When CPS becomes involved with a family, it is because an intake was called in. The intake can be called in by a family member, friend, teacher, or caregiver. When an intake is called in, the social worker is assigned and it is their job to explore the allegations against the family, provide a safety plan, risk assessment, and if necessary, prepare for removal of the child. Depending on the severity of the allegations, each case is labeled as a priority one (P-1), priority two (P-2), or priority none (P-none). If a case labeled as a P-1, the investigator has twenty-four hours to contact the family and participate in a full investigation. Once this happens, the investigator reevaluates the family and determines the safest plan for the child. After the investigation there is a safety plan put in place, the case is then reassigned to a caseworker. The caseworker then takes on the responsibility of visiting with the family or placing the child in kinship or foster care. The purpose of this study is to see if there is a link relating the phenomenon of burnout with the phenomenon of vicarious trauma. Both phenomena are affecting the Child Welfare Agency and their employees, directing attention of not only the supervisors of CPS, but to the organization itself, could potentially lead to a refiguration of the agency that allows for an intervention that would stop the symptoms of VT before it gets to burnout. This could lead our child welfare agencies to a possible intervention that in return, helps their social workers deal with the symptoms of vicarious trauma and could decrease the feelings over exhaustion mentally and physically, which could result in decreasing burnout of social workers that work in Child Protective Services. Review of LiteratureTexas is rated number one in the nation when it comes to child deaths related to abuse and neglect. In 2018, 211 children died due to the ineffective care of their parents or caregivers (TDFPS, 2018). This number is a 22. 7 percent increase from that of fiscal year of 2017 (TDFPS, 2018). When investigated, most children were being watched by caregivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As there is no way to regulate parental behavior, it is important to create an intervention at the Child Protective Services level to decrease the chances of this occurring. Most families that had a child die under their care had previous history with CPS, and most of these children were too young to be enrolled in school (TDFPS, 2018). The increase in cases relating to child fatalities is problematic for CPS workers. Problems can include high workloads and caseloads, time-consuming documentation, feeling undervalued and overwhelmed at their agency, and low salaries (Scannapieco & Connell-Carrick, 2007). When social workers are handling multiple cases it becomes increasingly difficult to properly monitor care of the children in those cases. According to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, the ecological environment is perceived as an interconnected nest where each section influences another (Sabri et al. , 2013). The ecological systems are separated into five categories: the individual, the microsystem, mesosystem, macrosystem and chronosystem. When looking at victimization and violence in relation to adolescents, it is important to understand how family, peer and community relationships influence a person (Sabri et al. , 2013).

The systems that directly affect the child are the microsystem and macrosystem. These systems include the relationship the child has with friends and family as well as the relationship those people have with one another. According to Sabri et al. (2013), when a child is involved with CPS, the social worker becomes an important part of the microsystem. This is the system where subjective meaning is given to interactions with the individual. A social worker can visit family, friends, or schools to gather the information they need to investigate the case. Because these systems are interconnected, the involvement of CPS can affect the development of the child due to the influence the social worker has on their ecological systems. Due to the interconnectedness with the social worker and the child’s ecological systems, it is important that social workers are mentally able and healthy. If they are not, it can affect care and attention needed for the children to receive the help they need. It is when social workers feel unable to do their jobs effectively, that symptoms of burnout and increasing turnover rates are observed. There are many studies that outline how high turnover rates and burnout dominate the field of child welfare. According to the Texas State Auditor’s Office (SAO), the turnover rate for employees at CPS was 26. 4 percent (Quinn, 2017). Social workers are constantly put in a high stress situation, they are overloaded with cases and they are severely underpaid for the time, effort, and commitment they must have to do their job efficiently. These working conditions make it hard for social workers to keep up with the workload that comes with the cases they get assigned. There are many misconceptions and negative opinions surrounding social workers and the child welfare system, but it is important to see how these concerns can compromise child safety and the efforts of the child welfare agencies (Quinn, 2017). These factors can lead to burnout, which is defined as “exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment” (Bombo & Blome, 2016). In many studies such as one written by Michelle Levy, John Poertner and Alice Lieberman, researchers acknowledge that symptoms of burnout play a pertinent role in the high turnover rates related to caseworkers at CPS. Levy et al. (2015), modeled that an employee tends to be more successful if they practice work life balance. This practice leads to a higher chance of job retention and satisfaction. Many studies recognize the symptoms of burnout as mental and physical exhaustion, and attribute these to heavy workloads and lower salaries. In a study written by Eileen Anne Dombo and Wendy Whiting Blome, burnout, and the symptoms that surround it, is described as a general term that is relatable to all occupations. Vicarious Trauma (VT), on the other hand, is a term related specifically to people that work closely to those who have experienced trauma (Dombo & Blome, 2016). Furthermore, Dombo and Blome (2016) assert that females have a higher sense of empathy and relatability, which, are the primary characteristics that make one more susceptible to experiencing VT. Due to the information we have already discussed, the research question guiding this proposal is: how to decrease burnout among workers in the child welfare system. By creating an intervention to recognize and decrease symptoms of vicarious trauma, caseworkers will be in a healthier state of mind, which in return could decrease the feeling of burnout and decrease high turnover rates. Methodology: Sample Method MeasuresStudy design Because this study involves a naturalistic inquiry design, the purpose of the study is meant to relate phenomena by storytelling and meaning making (Depoy & Gitlin, 2016). This type of study design is most widely used when the phenomena is unknown (Depoy & Gitlin, 2016). This type of design allows the researchers to use participant’s perceptions and experience and draw meaning from those experiences. This allows us to relate those perceptions and experiences back to our theoretical framework about ecological systems, as well as, further provide an insight into the life and typical work days of a social worker. Due to the insufficient knowledge surrounding vicarious trauma in relation to the field of social work, this study will allow us to fill in the gaps relating the two phenomena.

The questions used for the interviews will reflect on a typical workday for the caseworker. They will allow the participants to openly discuss what they do during their day and what aspects of their job causes them the most stress. The interview questions will be modeled after questions from a study conducted by Eileen Anne Dombo and Wendy Whitting Blome (2016), for example an interviewer may ask their interviewee about supervisory support, job environment and satisfaction. To further our knowledge about how stress affects the caseworkers during their day, we will replicate strategies used by Eric Gentry (2011). In his study, participants were to fill out the Professional Quality of Life Scale (PROQOL) located in appendix B, was used to determine compassion satisfaction and compassion fatigue within a workplace that is specific to working with highly vulnerable populations (Gentry, 2011). Since the PROQOL asks about work experiences and perceptions within the previous 30 days, it seems to be beneficial to this study to gain the information needed. Strategies of EngagementFor this study, we will be looking at supervisors, employees, and former employees of Child Protective Services in the Dallas/Fort Worth region of Texas. To enter the agency(s) of interest, the researchers in this study will contact supervisors by email and seek permission to use their facility. They will continue to contact supervisors until they find an agency to allow them to conduct the study. 15 supervisors, 15 employees, and 15 former employees will be selected to participate, for a total of 45 interviews. Each participant will be chosen from the “caseworker,” field, which is known for long-term exposure to stress-inducing situations with families. Analyzing representative responses from various levels with the same focus within the organization will provide a better understanding of Vicarious Trauma (VT) manifestation. Interviews will consist of 10 questions that are specific to the role and responsibilities of the interviewee, some sample questions will be located in appendix A. Employees and ex-employees will be asked the same questions as an experimental control. Interviews will not be timed and will continue until all questions have been answered by the full sample or saturation has occurred. It is imperative to note that researchers will only be in contact with adults who work at the facility, and the questions asked will be based off experiences in the workplace without direct reference to any case or child. This will eliminate any ethical violation of confidentiality. As well as eliminate any concern with entering/exiting the study. Procedures, Measures and Data CollectionSince there will be human participants in this study, it is vital to get the approval of the IRB. The IRB determines if the study requesting to be conducted promotes healthy tactics and indicates no risk to the participant. Once IRB approval is obtained, each participant will be asked to sign an informed consent form that lays out the purpose of the study and ensures their right to leave the study at any point.

After the interviews are completed, the researchers will use the audio recordings from the interview to transcribe the data and put it into files that separate supervisors’ answers from employee and non-employee answers. By using the Atlas. ti qualitative software program for transcribing, the transcriptions will ensure procedural rigor and reduce bias within the data collected. Since the researchers are not trying to invade the agency and disrupt the time sensitive workloads, they will use the strategies by Depoy and Gitlin (2015), to be onlookers where their job is to watch and observe. During the interview times allotted they will switch to another strategy suggested by Depoy and Gitlin (2015), to ask questions and have each participant describe experiences. Plan of AnalysisRecording, Transcribing & Coding To efficiently transcribe the data in an organizational manner, the interviewer will keep a journal logged with personal notes during the interview and then a short reflection of his thoughts after the interview is conducted. This journal will be able to provide a deeper understanding that one would not get by just listening to the recorded interviews. As the lead researcher, I would also keep a journal that reflects on my thoughts during each interview. Once all interviews have been completed, or once saturation has occurred, both lead and assistant researchers will compare our journals and discuss our findings. If both journals reflect perceptions and feelings that are similar, it will reduce the bias in our research. Procedural Rigor Using a variety of data collection tactics such as: note taking, transcribing, member checking, Atlast. ti qualitative software and reflective journals, our research will be a credible source of information. Since we are using the PROQOL scale modeled in Gentry’s (2011) study of Compassion fatigue, the researchers will be able to have a hard copy of perceptions about job satisfaction from employees. Because our researchers are going to be in one agency, the consistency of working with the same social workers will increase procedural rigor and allowing us to gain the trust of all the participants. Reducing biasDepoy and Gitlin (2015) suggest that after performing a research study, there are certain biases held from the researchers that occur from having experienced parts of the study.

As a woman who is highly empathetic, and is completing an internship at Child Protective Services, some bias may occur as I would be considered a target for symptoms of vicarious trauma. After visiting of homes of children that were injured due to parental neglect, I have already felt some of the symptoms described earlier. This personal experience is an example of some bias that could be shown through the research. In order to reduce bias within the study, the research assistant and myself will conduct a thorough analysis of each other’s data, illuminating potential bias in the other’s work. We will then review our findings along with our potential biases collectively to draw the most reliable conclusions from the data gathered. We will include the results of this analysis in the article, creating trustworthiness between the reader and the research. Recurring Themes Though this study has not yet been conducted, the primary theme we expect to see is evidence of burnout through the responses of the CPS social workers. Even though these caseworkers are likely experiencing burnout, it does not necessarily mean that they are not experiencing VT. The design of this study allows for the possibility of pursuing further research and can help distinguish a clearer relationship between VT and burnout. Implications and LimitationsImplications After the study has been conducted, certain implications are expected. One implication can be related to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory: caseworkers become part of the child’s microsystem or macrosystem, engendering a sense of responsibility to the child. This feeling of obligation to the children and the demands of that multiplied by the caseload are the conduit to VT and ultimately, burnout. Conversely, it can be argued that CPS workers are only in the child’s life for limited amounts of time, further research will be needed to verify the effects of that time spent together. Limitations Though this study has yet to be completed, there are some limitations that are present. The biggest limitation on this study is our sample. Because we are sampling 45 volunteers out of the 13,000 employees of the child welfare system in Texas (TDFPS 2018), we may not have a large enough sample to represent the population. Our specific focus on people who are experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma and burnout, may make some who volunteer outliers to our study and skew research results. Secondarily, if the agency we conduct our study with is well balanced it may skew our results. Having better supervisors or functions in place to offset VT such as counseling are often cited as factors increasing job satisfaction and decreasing the likelihood of burnout (Scannapieco & Connell-Carrick, 2009).

Employees and Non-employees:

  1. Walk me through a typical day in the office.
  2. Tell me your best experience/ success with a case.
  3. Tell me your worst experience involving a case.
  4. How is your relationship with your coworkers?
  5. How is your relationship with your supervisors?
  6. How would you describe your work environment?


  1. What advice do you give to your caseworkers when they start feeling overwhelmed with their caseloads?
  2. Explain to me the ways you help your team when they are struggling on a case?
  3. Tell me things you do around the workplace to Improve the functionality.
  4. When you are having a stressful day, what steps are you taking to ensure you are not taking your negative emotions out on your employees.


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10 December 2020
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