Last week, a Oklahoma state child welfare worker took his own life. This followed his being placed on administrative leave, along with several colleagues in response to the death of a child involved with the child welfare system. His supervisor, also placed on administrative leave, later resigned. The wife of the supervisor who resigned worked for the Department of Human Services as well and she resigned her position. [For more information on the precipitating events, please see the article, “Oklahoma Department of Human Services Worker Resigns During Investigation“.]
Before going further, I will state for the record, that as a rule I find it counter-productive to second-guess what has happened or to make recommendations regarding situations when my only knowledge is through media outlets. This is in part because I am very aware that the media often presents only part of the story. It is not their fault, entirely anyway. Generally there are confidentiality restrictions that prevent the sharing of information publicly and the media is left to piece together a story based on limited information.
Given this, I’m going to break my own rule and share my recommendations on the Oklahoma situation. There are so many troubling aspects to this (type of) story that I feel I’d be remiss if I remained mute. Part of my inclination is due to the fact that, while the details of this situation may be unique, this is every caseworkers’, supervisors’, and administrators’ nightmare. And the general strategy for dealing with it is all too familiar to those who have history with child welfare systems.
I’ll start with one word: trauma. There is more than enough of that to go around in this situation. Any time a child dies, whether they are involved in child welfare services or not, it is traumatic. Children are not supposed to die. They are supposed to play and go to school and grow up to start a career, maybe a family, and experience a few trials and tribulations in the process. Of course, it is even more difficult to fathom when a child dies at the hands of a parent or guardian. [Trauma #’s 1 & 2]
Then, a number of caseworkers are put on administrative leave. Regardless of how it was handled and whether it was deserved or not, it is a traumatic thing to suddenly be exiled from your workplace and co-workers and under a microscope. I doubt any of them are sitting back and saying, ‘hey, isn’t this great that I get paid to stay home and watch Law & Order reruns’.
They now are under scrutiny from not only supervisors and administrators, but by others in the workplace, family members involved, and the general public as well. . [Trauma # 3]
Next, the unthinkable happens and one of those placed on leave commits suicide. Regardless of whether their actions in the case were right or wrong, and regardless of how you feel about suicide in general, it is traumatic to have a colleague, friend, family member, neighbor take such drastic action. I feel horrible for this person and his family and I didn’t even know him. [Trauma # 4]
After all this, two long-time employees, one of whom was involved in this case, resign. It may not be on the same scale as the previously mentioned situations, but it is hard to lose a colleague, especially under such circumstances. I don’t recall ever saying to a colleague leaving their job, ‘hey, nice working with you, glad that you are leaving’. Even when someone I am not particularly fond of has left the workplace, there is a sense of temporary unbalance or emotional void. And even if they were not my favorite colleague, as a human being (and a heart-on-the-sleeve-social-worker), I have to wonder how they are doing, if they are OK. [Trauma # 5]
Now there is the whole issue of the investigation itself. While some may think it has nothing to do with other employees not involved in the case and therefore no impact on them, that is absolutely not true. Others in the organization cannot help but wonder, ‘what if it had been me?’ or ‘will we all be under scrutiny from now on?’. And for some, those involved are their friends, their close colleagues. Obviously, those directly involved are struggling emotionally and in some cases, separated from a supportive work environment. [Trauma # 6]
And of course there is the media. No offense to reporters but the bottom line is, when a person’s work is splashed all over newspapers and TV reports, it is traumatic. No one wants to be the object of such critical public scrutiny. And again, even those not involved with the case are likely to feel some degree of defensiveness, apprehension, over the public response to their chosen profession. [Trauma # 7]
There are no doubt more details that I could list here, but I’ll stop with seven. Now on to my recommendations. Some of these things may have been done. I don’t know. A few things clearly could be done, IMO. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their job. But I would like to make some suggestions, for those who might encounter a situation like this in the future.
1. Acknowledge the trauma at an individual level with those directly involved.
2. Provide opportunities for people involved directly and indirectly to talk about it in a ‘safe’ environment. This may be in the form of providing counseling services or other emotional supports. Ideally, a person trained in critical incident debriefing would be on-site within a day of the incident and as needed beyond that. (This service includes all employees, even administrators.)
3. Acknowledge to all employees that the situation impacts the organization. Send a memo, an e-mail, whatever method of communication fits the style and processes of the organization.
4. Communicate regularly: provide updates when possible, and if not possible, say that.
5. Similar to numbers 1 and 3, acknowledge the tragedies to the public. A simple statement on the home page of the website would do. Briefly stating that this is a horrific event and that every effort is being made to ensure that it does not happen again. I’m not suggesting that anyone accept blame for what occurred absent a finalized investigation. Simply acknowledging that the agency is made up of many people who, as humans, are impacted and saddened by the events.
6. To the extent possible, do not sequester those involved. Now, more than ever, they need the support of friends, family, colleagues. Granted, it may be necessary for the purposes of conducting a thorough investigation to restrict some contact. But pulling an entire support system entirely is inhumane.
7. Recognize and acknowledge that this series of events will have a long-lasting impact on the organization and act accordingly. This may take the form of periodic ‘all-staff’ meetings or conversations, memos, or ‘check-ins’ by supervisors and managers to ensure that staff have healthy coping strategies. Never assume that ‘no news is good news’ when it comes to the overall health of the organization.
8. Take a pro-active approach, learn from this experience, and develop or establish protocols and policies that can guide the organization if there are similar tragedies in the future.
9. Lastly, seek the advise of experts in providing a trauma-informed workplace. Often in human services, we forget that the ‘helper needs help’ occasionally.
Having said all this, I want to state that some or all of these may have occurred or may be ‘in process’ with this particular case. I hope so, for the sake of the employees, the organization, and the communities being served. An unhealthy organization cannot effectively or optimally serve vulnerable children and families. Conversely, a healthy organization can recover from this type of trauma and become a stronger, more effective workplace and provider of services in the community.