Theme 6.6: VT STS Common Ground Article 3

Common Ground Article, June 2014 Submission
Dealing with Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) in Vermont
Ask any staff member working in the field of child welfare what their reasons are for
choosing to engage in such work and one could reasonably expect a resounding and almost
universal theme of helping. Helping in the context of child welfare includes protecting,
counseling, preventing, supporting, advocating and assisting children and families who
often are victims and perpetrators of abuse and neglect, violence, diminished
opportunities, poverty, substance abuse and dependency, crime, and other issues. It is
commonly understood children and families in need of help often have significant
emotional and physical health needs that may or may not be related to environmental,
behavioral and psychosocial issues. Taken in total, children and families who are exposed
and immersed in these difficult circumstances often experience traumatic stress through
the nature of such situations.
There has been a great deal of emphasis within the last two decades on the nature and
scope of helping focused on trauma and its impact on the psychosocial, developmental,
educational, emotional and behavioral needs of children and their families. In the mid
1990’s questions were raised about what happens to helpers who work on behalf of
children and families who have significant trauma histories. Research on this topic has
demonstrated that by the nature of work child welfare workers are often exposed to and as
a result are vulnerable to experiencing traumatic stress.
There are a number of factors that helping professionals must endure in the scope of their
practice with respect to children and families. In the context of their role as a helping
professional the child welfare worker is confronted with the worst of human behavior
including the physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse of children and
adolescents. Child welfare practitioners work in dangerous conditions, and are deeply
affected by the stories they hear, the situations they must confront.
The single most important element of helping is the worker’s capacity to empathize. When
helpers experience secondary trauma symptoms they are less able to appreciate the
difficulties children and families endure and this may compromise their ability to provide
effective supports and services; they are vulnerable to what David Hoisington (2010) refers
to as “empathy contamination.”
The professional literature indicates workers in child welfare perceive little support by
management and supervisors in developing and implementing interventions designed to
prevent or intervene in addressing secondary trauma in the workplace. Secondary
traumatic stress has not received the attention it requires by administrators, trainers, and
supervisors. This is truly unfortunate given the linkage between secondary traumatic
stress and child welfare. Trauma in all its variations is a significant problem. Helping those
who help others, particularly in child welfare is critical to protecting the integrity of the
service delivery systems and to ensure the health and well-being of those who deliver these
important services.
Earlier this year, a course was offered at the University of Vermont on trauma, led by
Laurie Brown, LICSW and Jessica Strolin, Ph.D. Three of the participants in this course,
Melanie D’Amico, MSW, the DCF Client Placement Specialist, Andrea Grimm, BSW, Social
Work Supervisor, and Tim Fleming, MSW, Social Worker, arrived at the conclusion that
helping workers with secondary stress symptomology is an important initiative. Ms.
D’Amico advocated with the DCF - Family Services management team for a policy initiative
to be developed. She has established a committee to develop a policy ensuring that all DCF
– Family Services staff receive appropriate, on-going, as well as acute services designed to
prevent, reduce and alleviate secondary traumatic stress. The committee, chaired by Ms.
D’Amico, consists of: Laurie Brown, LICSW of UVM, VT-FACTS; Dr. Robert Walsh Ed.D.,
LICSW, ACSW, of The College of St. Joseph; Sonny Provetto, LICSW, Ph.D. candidate, who is
in private practice working with police in dealing with traumatic stress; Tim Fleming, MSW,
Brattleboro DCF; Andrea Grimm, BSW, Middlebury DCF; and Beth Maurer, MSW, DCF-FSD,
VT-FACTS. A copy of a proposed draft requiring implementation of secondary trauma
symptom prevention and secondary trauma symptom intervention will be available for
review soon. The advantage of developing this policy is to not only help those who provide
services to vulnerable children and families, but to also eliminate the discretionary nature
of providing such services.
While the current policy initiative is currently being developed specifically for the Vermont
Department for Children and Families, Family Services Division, the committee supports
this policy being expanded to include other Departments, Divisions and Agencies. The
committee members believe that creating and sustaining an emotionally healthy workforce
by acknowledging, preventing, and treating secondary traumatic stress will result in better
outcomes for the vulnerable population on whose behalf we work.
Respectfully submitted by the Vermont Secondary Traumatic Stress Committee