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Caring is a Chronic Illness

Ten years ago I began teaching Advanced Social Work Practice as an adjunct professor. Despite my juggling of too many irons, I really felt energized when I taught. Yet because of my other obligations, I only agreed to teach when I could carve out enough time to respect the University and the students by giving them my whole heart and mind. I have been asked, from time to time, if I would teach virtual classes during semesters when I can't commit to in person classes. But, so far, I have been hesitant to teach online. For me, the energy, passion and demonstration required to truly impart the knowledge, skills and abilities of social work practice, must be delivered in person.

You see, every semester that I stand in front of these eager future social workers, I gain, from them, reminders of my own ideals and my determination to make a difference in the lives of others. I teach the curriculum, but also am known to offer up real life examples of social work: both the rewarding and the frustrating. I talk to them about the secondary trauma risk and the need for self care. But I also try to really learn about them, curious about what guided them on this narrow path.

More often than not, I discover these young adults have had a history of caring. Some students came from dysfunctional families where they were the "saviors". Some came from families that were community minded and they were always encouraged to lift up others. Other students saw trauma around them and wanted to help. And , of course, there were students who have no idea how they chose social work or even if they made the right choice.

As I think about these students, who have no idea of the cost of caring, I often wonder if we prepare new social workers for all that they will give: time, family, physical and mental health. Social work is not for the faint of heart.

A social workers' entire career surrounds dealing with a population in crisis, where immediacy is the key. Obviously, then, their most obvious sacrifice is time. Social workers give up nights, weekends and holidays when they are required to respond to crisis. Often, their caseloads are so high, that even if not dealing with a family in crisis, the social worker stays late and comes to work early just to climb the mountain of paperwork involved with every case.

Meanwhile, their own husbands, wives and children are relegated to the backseat in that moment. I have spoken with children of social workers, who admitted that they resented all of the time their parent gave to other families. And the divorce rate for social workers is around 24% compared to 19% for psychologists. As a new social worker, learning to juggle your personal life and the demands of working with abused children can and will take a toll. At least until they find their own self-care regimen.

Sleep is another sacrifice given unwillingly by social workers. I don't think I have ever known a social worker who did not experience insomnia or sleep disturbances from time to time. The stress of keeping afloat in an endless sea of crisis, casework and the conflict, interferes with a regulated circadian rhythm. We all know the health benefits of regular sleep. But do we realize the consequences of poorly regulated sleep (anxiety, high blood sugar, high blood pressure etc).? Lack of quality sleep is an outcome of dealing in a high stress/crisis-oriented field. Especially if they also have little to no agency support.

My purpose for pointing out the extreme difficulty of the social work profession is in response to the loss of dedicated, passionate people who give up because they just can't keep making the sacrifices without more support. Across the US, Child Welfare agencies are having a difficult time filling positions because fewer people are applying for jobs in the child welfare field. And the turnover rate for child welfare social workers is at an all-time high Personally, the more I hear about the struggle to hire and retain child welfare workers, the more I mourn the families who depend on them for protection, advocacy and mental health stabilization.

Why are they deciding not to work in child welfare? Why are they leaving in droves? Because I have worked in child welfare for over 30 years before I retired, I can attest to the fact that the job has not really changed all that much. What has changed are two things: Increasing Apathy and Unrealistic Expectations.

Child Welfare is a government funded and administered program, In other words, it is political. Funding depends largely upon the state legislators. Child Welfare doesn't bring in revenue, doesn't look exciting on paper and often the populace who are not involved with child welfare are apathetic. Therefore, it is the ugly stepsister who sleeps in the cinders and doesn't get invited to the ball. Ergo, is not properly funded and as staff exit, the ones who remain (hanging on by teeth and toenail) are expected to take up the slack. Which makes sense if we were talking about making widgets. But, each new case given to an overworked social worker is another life or lives depending upon the ability of that worker to "do the nearly impossible". When people don't see, hear or know about the plight of child welfare, apathy breeds disinterest.

Which leads us to expectations. Think about if you were a single parent of 18 children (the standard caseload) who all lived in different places where their health and safety were tenuous. You have very little support and help in ensuring that each of those children are cared for, safe, and getting what they need to thrive. Every single thing they need to survive requires the completion of forms. You only are able to go check on them monthly, and you worry about them all of the time. (because you care). Then your next door neighbor moves and leaves 10 more children of whom you now have responsibility. I know the analogy is not perfect, but the point is that despite the already high expectations of leaders, the workers are continually having more families added to their caseload. You really don't have to be psychic to see the risk.

Despite some of the rhetoric, social workers are not leaving because of money. They are leaving because they care. They care that they cannot possibly juggle so many lives without someone falling through the cracks. The secondary trauma is real, but on top of that is the fear of what failure would mean.

What is the answer? I am not going to spout gloom and doom without offering up a solution. However, the solution is well beyond my hands. The solution requires the education of the populace in the importance of a properly funded and administered child welfare system. People forget the power in numbers. When a cause (or in this case an agency) comes into focus, it receives attention and often resources. Unfortunately, child welfare only receives attention when there is a child death, or lawsuit. Then, everyone loves to point fingers and find someone to blame.

What if we were more proactive? What if we didn't wait until a tragedy occurs to raise awareness of the amazing job each social worker could do with the resources and support that they need. Let's hear, on the hill, some of the stories in which social workers made lives better, more productive and safer. Aren't our children worth it? Why do we not toot our own horn to those who have the power to bring about change?

It cost a lot to care. It costs more, in the long run, not to.

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