Nothing can prepare you for the deep responsibility you have the capacity of feeling when a life is in your hands. The fear felt when you know nothing can protect you from another person’s rage fueled from deep sadness and feeling hopeless without so much as a keychain of pepper spray to buy you some time if needed. These are just two of the constants in the day and the life of a child safety worker. I walked in those shoes for two years and let me tell you….I gained some miles and memories that will stick with me for a lifetime.
I will always remember being asked to lie down at the doctor’s office, which I frequented while employed by the state, and being told my resting heart rate was that of a marathon runner. The extent of my activity for that day was walking from my car in the parking lot to the exam room. I was constantly feeling overwhelming symptoms throughout my body of pain, exhaustion and nausea. Come to find out, this was my body’s response to a not-so-normal level of constant/chronic stress. These symptoms took a year and a half after my resignation to subside.
Never-the-less, we persisted. We entered the office around 8 am each morning. We checked our caseloads for new reports, and hoped to the heavens we would have time to finish our court reports by the deadline and place children in a timely manner if a removal was on the books for the day. We would spend an hour or so sifting emails and listening to voicemails. We would read through reports we sure hoped would turn out to be inaccurate or “fluffed” by the source. Sometimes they were, often times they weren’t. We would check the board to see where we were on rotation for priority one reports. Who would most likely end in removal later that day.
More so than the clerical day to day, the decision making in the field was by far the most stressful. Will this child or children be safe tonight if I leave without them. If I am preparing to separate a family, will I be doing the right thing? Would services work instead? Or what if I decided to leave the children in the home due to lack of “evidence” and something terrible happens. I left investigations open for months and months just in case something else should come through.
We hear about the fight, flight or freeze response. We know the children entering our homes and schools from these types of struggles are systemically affected. But we never consider the workers on the front line who have intensive, vicarious trauma. The workers who protect children to the best of their ability and at times fall devastatingly short.
There were days. OH were there days. Days when you see the little kid in the eyes of a traumatized parent caught in the throws of a cycle of abuse. They too grew up in and knew the system very well. Your heart tore for them. What if they had someone to truly hear them when they yell and cuss and fight, clawing desperately at the idea of someone listening.
When you begin an investigation, you look at a white paper with black font. When you leave an investigation you see the world is never black and white, but a million shades of grey. The job feels nearly impossible most days. But you show up and you try again. Advocating fiercely for the justice and safety children deserve.
Does it affect you? Every day for the rest of your life.
Will it change you? You betcha.
Is it really worth it? …. If one child gets to be safe and feel love and stability for the first time in his/her life…….it sure is.
Would I do it again? I don’t know the answer yet. I appreciate the incredibly trying experiences that I gained at a very young age working as a child protection worker.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, its not going to get better, it’s not.”
– a clinical trauma professional/previous foster parent/previous child protection investigator/biological mother/friend.