Academic journal article Child Welfare

When a Child Welfare Client Dies: An Agency-Centered Perspective

Academic journal article Child Welfare

When a Child Welfare Client Dies: An Agency-Centered Perspective

Article excerpt

When working with vulnerable children and their families, the specter of client death for child welfare workers and agencies is recognized as a rare but unsparingly real event. This article uses an agency-centered perspective to explore the multilayered steps agencies may implement at the supervisory through administrative levels to build agency-wide support for workers to cope and perform well during such crises.

Few events in the life cycle are more stressful than a loved one's death. Practitioners and researchers continue to explore ways to help individuals grieve the death of family members and guide professionals in helping others grieve (e.g., Harvey, 1998; Hendricks, 1991; Kaunonen, Tarkka, Hautamaki, & Paunonen, 2000; Walsh & McGoldrick, 1991; Worden, 1991, 1996). A central theme of the literature is that ignoring or muting strategies to cope with emotions of grief and death-related issues may trigger or lead to negative cognitive and emotional consequences.

This article's purpose is to explore what is known about how child welfare agencies prepare their staff to work effectively when a client death occurs. It focuses on client death because it cannot be anything other than an extremely stressful event for child welfare workers, whether the death is due to natural causes or violence. The authors focus on an agency-centered perspective to encourage an agency-wide response to support line staff as they work to achieve their mission, namely, to protect the safety of children. To organize what is known in the professional literature about client death and occupational stress generally from an agency-centered perspective, the authors asked three questions: (1) What immediate individual and situational factors might agency supervisors consider to support a worker immediately in coping with client death? (2) What supervisory roles are most likely to prepare and support child welfare workers over time? (3) What agency policies, training strategies, and administrative roles support workers in coping and performing well during such crises?

Stress is "a psychological state which is part of and reflects a wider process of interaction between the person and their work" (Cox, Griffiths, & Rial-Gonzalez, 2000, p. 10). From this personin-environment perspective, a worker may be continuously exposed to multiple sources of stress or psychosocial hazards at work. But it is only when the worker consciously perceives those hazards as stressful that stress may be said to occur.

Stress may be expressed through compromised physical and psychological health (Figley, 1995; Horowitz et al., 1997; Savicki & Cooley, 1994) as well as aggregate agency-related symptoms, such as increased absenteeism, reduced effectiveness and efficiency, increased tension in staff relationships, or turnover (Cox & Griffiths, 1995; Cox et al, 2000; Drake & Yadama, 1996; Himle, Jayaratne, & Thyness, 1989). The costs of stress are staggering. In the United Kingdom, for example, employers lose about 40 million work days annually due to stress-related problems (Cox et al., 2000). No comparable data are available for social workers in the United States. Horowitz, Wilner, and Alvarez (1979), however, found that although firefighters and social service workers had equivalent risk of exposure to traumatic incidents, social service workers reported more traumatic symptoms. In child welfare agencies, staff are exposed repeatedly and chronically to the Stressors of clients' suffering from trauma and death, and both workers and agencies as a whole are at risk of stress and its negative consequences.

Traditional perspectives on stress, such as the medical model, tend to be reductionist, and thus they focus on individual vulnerability to stress as a disease with known symptoms and on individual responsibility to become well or hardy again. Much has been learned about individual variability in responding to stress both physiologically and psychologically. …

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