Creating an Evidence-based Program to Build Resiliency in Child Abuse Staff and Volunteers, an ARRA-funded project supported by the US Dept of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, leverages the vast knowledge and practice expertise of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work to address gaps in training and technical assistance for child abuse organizations.
Funding for this 2-year national demonstration project will yield products developed with input from the end-users: child abuse program managers; and promote evidence-based practices that sustain essential high quality services to abused children.
Child abuse organizations need evidence-based training and technical assistance products to build resiliency in staff and volunteers, and maintain high quality, essential services to abused children.
The field of crime victim services recognizes the potential impact of exposure to trauma (Lord & O’Brien, 2009). A 1999 focus group of victim service providers reported that 75 percent of their agencies recognized the stress-related symptoms of staff and volunteers (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999).
There is also a large body of evidence on how working with traumatized people affects allied professionals suggesting that child abuse program staff and volunteers can be similarly affected. Studies have indicated that approximately 38 percent of social workers experience moderate to high levels of secondary traumatic stress (Cornille & Meyers, 1999; Dalton, 2001). It is well-documented that nurses (Joinson 1992), police officers (Follette, Polusny, & Milbeck, 1994), sexual assault counselors (Johnson & Hunter, 1997; Regehr & Cadell, 1999; Schauben & Frazier, 1995), child protective service workers (Cornille & Meyers, 1999), and trauma therapists (Chrestman, 1995; Follette et al., 1994; Kassan-Adams, 1995; Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995) are all at risk for symptomology quite similar to acute posttraumatic stress reactions due to second-hand exposure to traumatic material (Bell, Kulkarni & Dalton, 2003).
Compassion fatigue is a factor in the turnover among child welfare caseworkers. A staggering 30 to 40 percent leave with the average duration of employment less than two years, prompting training for supervisors on how to recognize the signs and deal with the effects. (Salus, 2004). When experienced practitioners leave the field due to compassion fatigue, they take with them their advanced knowledge of how to assist victims and mentor new workers.
This exodus has a direct effect on volunteer-dependent national child abuse programs, such as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). Each case a CASA works builds expertise, so these child abuse organizations are particularly looking for strategies that keep volunteers coming back. J. Gagen (Personal communication, February 2, 2009)
There are two paths to banishing burnout: the individual path, and the organizational path (Maslach & Leiter, 2005). Existing approaches primarily take the individual path which requires practitioners to attend training, taking time away from heavy case loads and using either personal funds or limited agency funds to attend.
A strong case can be made of the need for an organizationally-based approach. To exercise the “duty to inform,” we must ensure that those exposed to crime victimization are prepared, and incorporate stress, burnout and compassion fatigue into our curriculum, and especially our supervision (Salston & Figley, 2003). One researcher suggests that since organizations can be a cause of stress themselves, organizations providing services to trauma victims have a practical and ethical responsibility to address this risk (Bell et al, 2003).
No organizational program specifically targeted for the child abuse field exists, but other programs offer strategies that should be evaluated for their appropriateness. Peer support groups where workers can exchange information and provide support to minimize the likelihood of experiencing severe secondary traumatic stress (STS) symptoms have proved useful (Meyers, 1996).
Resiliency can be promoted (Werner, 1982). Resiliency generally refers to one’s ability to return to healthy functioning after being in a stressful situation (Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker, 2000; Tugade and Frederickson, 2004).
Just as resiliency traits can be developed within individuals, they can also be acquired by organizations. Fostering organizational resilience is critical, because when organizations strengthen victim service providers’ resilience, they also notice a consequent positive effect in the services the providers deliver (Lord & O’Brien, 2009).
Administrators of child abuse programs recognize compassion fatigue and the problems it causes in terms of staff and volunteer turnover. Many want to take a pre-emptive approach, but don’t have the knowledge of what needs to be done or the time to do it. B. Peters. (Personal communication, May 129, 2008)
To date, most of the interventions to counter the effects of working in the trauma field are based on anecdotal experiences. In these financially challenging times, resource dollars can no longer be spent on programs without a proven track record of success with large numbers of people they are intended to help (Frogge & Lord, 2009).
What is needed is an evidence-based program that child abuse organizations can implement to build resiliency in staff and volunteers. To bolster the capacity of those who may have little or no actual human resources training, the program should include strategies to recruit, orient and train new workers, and retain experienced workers. Training and technical assistance including peer support should be part of the program. An evaluation mechanism that engages the child abuse field throughout the process is critical. Evidence that the program reduced stress and turnover would be the final determinant of whether the program is successful.
Project Design and Implementation Plan
The purpose of the project is to address gaps in the child abuse topic area for training and technical assistance materials that build capacity for child abuse organizations to implement a program that fosters resiliency in their staff and volunteers. To accomplish this, IDVSA has a three-point strategy: (1) leverage the knowledge and practice expertise of the Project Team to develop evidence-based training and technical assistance products, (2) engage a broad cross-section of child abuse practitioners and allied professionals from jurisdictions across the country as collaborative partners in the development of these products to ensure their usefulness to the field, and (3) serve as a good steward of Recovery Act funds, completing all activities expeditiously and maximizing opportunities for job creation and economic stimulus.
Sponsor: US Dept of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC)