Whole Hearted Child Protection Work
I’ve been writing lately about vulnerability, sticking with the discomfort of the feeling, and using it to guide more authentic and connected living. It occurs to me, that the capacity to sit with vulnerability and to have the courage to explore it, is foundational to reflective practice and in turn to healthy child protection work. Yet vulnerability is not encouraged or easily incorporated into professional child protection practice. Far too often we are focused on managerial tasks, compliance and maintaining an “I’m just fine” stoicism. A good child protection practitioner, it is reasoned, can (and should) incorporate the emotional intensity of the work, the environments in which the work is undertaken and the absence of support, into their professional reality. If they cannot, the failure to do so is likely to be attributed to a personal or professional deficit, rather than a reflection of the work, or the system the work is undertaken within. “Maybe they just weren’t cut out for the work…”
In order to explore the cultural imperatives that encourage us as individuals and practitioners to numb our vulnerability, I have posted Dr Brene Brown’s wonderful Ted Talk above. I am certain listening to her speak will resonate for you on both a personal and professional level.
In child protection work, the term “vulnerability” is one we align with children and families, our clients. It is not usually used openly to reflect on the professional practice experiences of the varied professionals and practitioners who work with these clients. I have recently read some of the work of the late, Dr Tony Morrison who speaks of the impact of child protection work on the practitioner undertaking it. He uses an organization stress model and an adaptation of Roland Summits’ Child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome (1983). Dr. Morrison is speaking of the normal wear and tear of high emotional intensity work, coupled with environments which can be insensitive or hostile to reflective practice and emotional vulnerability. Using Summit’s classifications he writes of:
- Secrecy, where staff do not speak of the emotional impact of the work for fear of being perceived as not coping.
- Helplessness, when agency expectations are that staff look after and protect themselves. These false expectations do not encourage workers to express feelings of helplessness or vulnerability.
- Entrapment and accommodation, when workers are trapped in a value distortion whereby telling the truth is seen as unprofessional and weak, and denial is seen as being strong and coping.
- Delayed or unconvincing disclosure, which may be seen in circumstances where disclosure of a worker’s distress is triggered by inter-professional conflict behaviours such as volatility, anger, aggression, resignation or immobilisation.
- Retraction, which occurs when a delayed or unconvincing disclosure by a worker is met with disbelief, scepticism or punishment by the agency.
Dr Morrison also writes about the impact of organization culture on child protection workers. He identifies the following challenges to healthy practice:
- Societal/political environments, in which child abuse is responded to with ambivalence, where staff are perceived as ‘all powerful’ whilst perceiving themselves as powerless, and workers are coming under increasing media and judicial scrutiny.
- The pace and change of legislation.
- Organisational cultures, including myths and beliefs around the management of stress.
- Management where, with some exceptions, effective teamwork and mutual support amongst senior management is not the norm.
- Negative early experiences of supervision, leading to long-lasting damage and a resistance to subsequent good experiences.
- With a small number of exceptions, there is no special attention paid to stress in most courses, nor is there a national policy or nationally prescribed training syllabus on stress.
- Teamwork, where such a destructive environment exists in some teams that coping with the team can become more of a problem than dealing with clients.
- Working with clients, when both field workers and managers experience a degree of stress associated with direct contact with clients.
- Helpers and their resources, each of us bring our own strengths and vulnerabilities to the work that we do, which in turn minimises or contributes to the climate of stress in which people work.
If we consider the work of Dr Morrison and the work of Dr Brene Brown, it is readily apparent that the practice of numbing our emotions and denying the challenges of child protection work cannot help but to pose a serious disservice to child protection practitioners and to their clients through collateral damage. We cannot pretend that the work we do doesn’t have an enormous impact on people. Nor can we pretend that the work that we do doesn’t also have an enormous impact on us.
So how do we cope?
Dr Morrison posited that we did not need problem-free environments, but that we need to incorporate healthier problem solving processes to deal with both the pace of change and the real needs of practitioners undertaking child protection work. He believed change would occur when we were able to shift the focus away from 100% compliance driven, managerial systems to ones, which were ordered around occupational health and an awareness of the emotional impact of the work upon child protection workers. He advocated for improvement of the quality of leadership, communication, supervision and feedback for and from the child protection sector. Dr. Brown also had a few simple, pertinent suggestions that could apply:
- To let ourselves be seen
- To live, work and love with our whole hearts, even when it is difficult
- To practice gratitude and lean into joy
- To believe we are enough
Change will come when we are able to enter into our work, whole-hearted and be appropriately supported to remain there.
Training and Development Manager