A Social Worker’s Thoughts on Child Protection Social Work
by Cathy Lipke, MSW
Child protection is a myriad of different experiences. Sad, joyous, shocking, and scary are just a few descriptors. There are not many jobs where you get to encounter uniquely different situations every day. These situations can bring out a wide array of emotions from joy to anger. To manage these situations and emotions, supervision is one of the most important tools we have. There is no one approach or perfect practice to strive for; each situation demands its own assessment and tactic. Just as no one worker is perfect, no one system is perfect. If you can live with all of this, you will discover that child protection is an awesome job.
Each day is different, and each case calls for different skills. Day to day, I travel to schools, hospitals, homes, police stations, parks, community centers, malls, libraries, and lots of McDonald’s restaurants. Day to day, I bring up difficult and bizarre subjects with people about their sex lives and sexual interests, childhood experiences, criminal pasts, thoughts about parenting, life goals, vacation plans, hobbies, romantic relationships, intelligence, religion, food preferences, and even their favorite movies and TV shows. No subject or location is off limits if it is relevant to a child and a child’s safety. I often start my day sitting at my desk, and through the course of the day I may end up being called to a school and then a police station. Next thing I know, I am sitting at a hospital at 8 p.m. There is no end to the possibilities and situations I might find myself in.
One youth I worked with had me start my day sitting with her in court, waiting for her no-contact application to be heard, and then ended with me taking her shoe shopping and dropping her off at her placement. Another report called for me to take a child to the airport, which was three hours away, at 5 a.m. to catch a plane back to the child’s father.
The wide scope of our job often brings out a wide array of emotions. At times, it is difficult to keep these emotions in check. I have lost my temper with a client. I have cried with and for a client. I have been sarcastic with a client. I have cared deeply about a client. I have laughed at and with a client. And I have been attracted to a client.
Don’t be afraid to laugh with a client. Child protection can be so serious at times. Don’t forget to show clients that you are a real person. Once, I had to drive a mother of an infant to a forensic medical appointment at a specialized hospital. During the car ride, she was anxious and nervous about her exam, and I had been talking to her about what to expect and trying to calm her. During a moment of silence, I sang a verse from the song on the radio under my breath. She started to sing it quietly, too. I turned the volume up, and we sang the song loudly together, laughing.
It is sometimes difficult to remain level headed when you are involved in a complex and highly volatile situation. Parenting is a deeply personal thing, and most people have strong feelings and opinions about it. When the situation calls for it, separating a mother and father from their children can be the hardest part of the job. There are lots of emotions surrounding the removal of a child—relief, fear, and doubt about whether you are making the best decision are just a few. I don’t think there are any social workers who can look back and be certain of every decision they have made in every situation. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is go home at night and reflect that you made the best decision with the information you had at the time.
The wide array of emotions needs to be untangled. For me, an important part of child protection has always been supervision and debriefing. If you cannot discuss and examine details of a case at length with a supervisor who is smarter or more experienced than you, you will burn out. One way to process information is through talking and examining situations, and child protection is no exception to the process.
I have often thought that child protection social workers should have partners, like police officers do—one person you can conduct meetings and investigations with, one person to bounce ideas off of, and two assessments of each situation. Child protection work should not be done in isolation, and having two people’s views can only strengthen the assessment. This also allows for comradery and the feeling that someone else has shared your experience, traumatic or happy. There is a comfort in that.
Regular supervision provides the ability to talk about and look at your experiences from different perspectives. A good supervisor allows you to talk about your personal feelings about a situation and reflect on what could be done differently. The more years I work in child protection, the more I realize it is more important to have a good supervisor you respect and trust than to have a higher paying prestigious position.
There is no one theory or approach that works in each situation. Each person and situation is different, and the best we can do is to be flexible and meet the clients where they are. Seek advice from experienced workers if you are having trouble, and be able to acknowledge when what you are doing is not working.
These are my experiences, and I am writing as an average child protection social worker. I am not advocating a particular approach to practice, and I am not advocating you practice as I do. My practice is not always spot on, and no one is perfect. I hope that you can learn from your own and others’ experiences. Child protection is a difficult job for many reasons.
I used to wonder why my 20-year-old self would choose this as a career path. Why would I purposely subject myself to people who are in constant emotional pain, and to children who are physically hurt or killed by the people who are supposed to love and protect them? Why did I choose to work with children who are sexually abused by adults who justify and minimize what they do, or people who live in severe poverty and can’t afford to eat or pay the rent, people who are angry…so angry?
When I am asked, “Why did you become a child protection social worker?” the best answer I can give is that I saw children who were hurting and in need of help, and child protection is one way western society attempts to address this problem. It isn’t the best way, as evidenced by the fact that there is recurrent generational trauma of child abuse/neglect and that 80% of the work we do is with the same 20% of families. But it is the best we have from intake to investigation to court.
A co-worker who was writing a court report shouted from his desk, “How do you spell masturbate?” After a pause, he said, “We have the best job ever.”
Cathy Lipke, MSW, graduated with her BSW degree in 2005 in British Columbia, Canada. She worked in child protection for six years in Northern rural communities. In 2010, she graduated with her MSW degree and moved to Australia to practice child protection. Cathy has moved back to British Columbia and resumed her work in child protection.