This blog post has been written by Prof. Ansie Fouché and Dr Elmien Truter from the Department of Social Work at North-West University, South Africa.
Worldwide children in need of care and protection are protected by a specific group of social workers, namely child protection social workers (CPSWs). These social workers are frequently confronted with the duty of removing maltreated children from the care of abusive/neglectful caregivers. Furthermore, they are tasked with investigating alternative placements for such children and to empower families with the needed skills to work towards being reunified with their children. In this process, CPSWs are often subjected to different forms of adversity such as violent and aggressive parents and caretakers; hostile community members; demanding caseloads, aggressive lawyers and daunting court proceedings. Prolonged exposure to such working conditions might ultimately lead to negative outcomes for CPSW, such as burnout, compassion fatigue, depression and high attrition rates. There are however many CPSWs who adjust positively to such hostile working conditions. This ability to “bounce back” is called resilience.
As registered social workers and social work academics, we have been interested to find out what the resilience of CPSWs entails. In South Africa the role and functions of CPSWs are regulated by the Children’s Act (38 of 2005), and they are referred to as “designated social workers”. These professionals hold a four-year university degree, are registered with a professional council (South African Council for Social Service Professions) and must adhere to the specific code of ethics. After conducting a meta-synthesis (a systematic review of literature sources), we found that CPSWs worldwide are no strangers to adversity. Instead, we found that this profession is indeed a risk-laden profession and pose numerous negative outcomes for these professionals (Truter, Fouché & Theron, 2016). What was alarming, however, was how little was documented about CPSW resilience. If we want to either mobilize ecologies to support CPSWs better or to better empower these professionals with the needed knowledge and skills to adapt positively to such a risk-laden profession, we need to know what works well for those who are doing well.
We subsequently embarked on a journey of interviewing CPSWs in South Africa who are either considered resilient by their peers or who consider themselves to be resilient. We have also included social work academics and social work supervisors in our study. Our aim was to find out: (a) what exactly is it about this job that places them at risk for negative health outcomes and (b) how is it that they adjust well to such adverse working circumstances (I.E., what promotes their resilience)? So far we have interviewed a total of 31 professionals in one of the provinces in South Africa. Our long term goal is to develop a resilience enhancing intervention programme for CPSW supervisors by continuing our investigation, amending nascent resilience enhancing guidelines (Truter & Fouché, 2015), and to then evaluate such a programme before implementing with target population.
Participating CPSWs confirmed their adverse working contexts and related these risks specifically to: (i) work pressure (e.g., unmanageable caseloads of above 100, lack of autonomy, political influences on priorities within CPSW tasks); (ii) inadequate professional support (e.g. irregular on unsupportive supervision, little to no resources); (iii) financial strain (e.g., paltry salaries that do not match continuously rising living costs); (iv) challenges unique to the nature of CPSW (e.g., removal of children, provocative court experiences and exposure to aggressive clients); and (v) emotional exhaustion, which aligns with what CPSWs across the globe have reported (Truter, Fouché & Theron, 2016) to constitute risk factors in this profession. A number of participants explained that these risk factors exacerbated the situation for CPSWs who came from dysfunctional personal backgrounds themselves, and/or who demonstrated certain unhelpful attitudes or personality traits such as pride, being arrogant or insecure, inability to set and respect boundaries and being over emotional.
However, they continued to explain why and how they adjusted well to these risks. Their resilience processes included: a) practice- and purpose-informing creeds (all participants had a passion for, or sense of being called to, CPSW); (b) supportive collaborations (participants all mentioned specific supportive relationships of a professional, personal, or religious nature that facilitated their resilience); (c) constructive transactions (respecting personal needs and boundaries, investing in self-care activities, being solution focused, engaging in continuous training and education, and practicing self-control); (d) accentuating the positive (celebrated victories despite the many failures; shared humour in the midst of feeling overwhelmed by case overload; adopting a positive attitude; and purposefully chose positive company, to sustain themselves through the adversities); (e) individual strengths (certain personality traits including, but not limited to: intelligence, having internal locus of control, patience, authenticity, a strong character, integrity, and someone who focuses on the facts).
Recent developments in resilience research points to the more important role that social ecologies play or should play in enhancing individual resilience, and dismisses the notion that resilience is mainly associated to individual strengths (Wright & Masten, 2015; Ungar, 2011). The participants in our study, however, emphasised that their resilience was mostly a result of their demonstrated internal strengths/ personality traits, such as: perseverance, reaching out to alternative resources, optimism, making healthy choices and making a plan when ecologies fail. Although some role players of their ecologies contributed to their resilience (for instance healthy friendships, available resources like a safe park or a gym), they strongly argued that their resilience was the outcome of supportive partnerships between the CPSWs and ecologies, mostly initiated or negotiated by the CPSWs who linked these initiatives and negotiations to particular traits and internal strengths.
Although there is little evidence in literature to support this stance, it is however imperative to listen to and acknowledge the voices of our participants – after all, they are the experts on their own circumstances. Subsequently, we wonder what this signifies. Are certain individual strengths a prerequisite to CPSW resilience? Are these individual strengths sufficient for long term resilience in such hostile working contexts? Have the ecologies of these professionals forgotten that they too need protection? We are also interested to investigate whether this emphasis (an emphasis on individual strengths to secure resilience among South African CPSWs) will change when we interview CPSWs in different contexts – or will we find CPSWs whose ecologies are more active in the negotiation and initiation of support? Hence, we plan to interview further groups of resilient CPSWs in different regions of South Africa soon.
Truter, E., & Fouché, A. (2015), ‘Guidelines for promoting designated social worker resilience within reflective supervision’, Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 51(2), 221-243.
Truter, E., Fouché, A. & Theron, L. (2016), ‘The Resilience of Child Protection Social Workers: Are They at Risk and If So, How Do They Adjust? A Systematic Meta-Synthesis’, British Journal of Social Work, In press.
Ungar, M. (2011). The social ecology of resilience: Addressing contextual and cultural ambiguity of a nascent construct. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(1), 1-17.
Wright, M. O., & Masten, A. S. (2015). Resilience Processes in Development. Handbook of Resilience in Children, 17–37.