It was Christmas Eve and I sat alone in my office, occasionally glancing up from my work to make sure the mountains were still there. I had persevered my way into the honorable position of third in seniority and my prize was a room with a view. A gorgeous, watch-the-sun-rise-over-the-Rockies view. Only that’s not the real story. The real story is that I had just reached my one year anniversary as a Child Protection Specialist with the State of Montana. I had never been a child protection worker before and here I was, third in seniority, desperately wanting more mentorship for the hardest job I will ever have. Children’s lives were at stake.
Mentorship was not a priority or a possibility because the one seasoned worker left in my office was burned out. My mental health was not a priority or a possibility for the State or for myself. I had bills to pay and children to save. The State had paperwork quotas to fill. After less than one year, I had accrued six weeks of paid leave by working overtime. When I chose “paid time off” instead of actual money, little did I know that I would have to quit before I could use it. In an office that could not keep more than half of the positions filled, I was not allowed to take off Christmas Eve (the day my family celebrates) not because I had children to save, but because I was not caught up on my reports. In fact, I did not catch up on my reports until I put in my two weeks notice and stopped seeing kids.
Eventually, this office dwindled to two child protection specialists because no one could withstand the complete lack of attention to the humanity of its workers. Many of my coworkers had experienced physical illnesses as a result of stress. One woman was losing her hair. I was so drained that I found it difficult to take care of the basic needs of my own life - like paying bills and helping my family cope with dying elders. It was all I could do to muster the energy to get out my checkbook.
I have this really annoying tendency to want to do a good job. Sometimes it serves me and sometimes it serves others. But in this case, it seemed I was serving a broken system that no one could even really understand. The administrators wanted everyone to catch up on reports so that they could so that they could retain their federal funding and so that they could figure out what was wrong. I’ll tell you what was wrong — workers are burned out, broken down, overloaded, under-appreciated, isolated, invisible, physically and emotionally unsafe, taken for granted, and caught in ethical dilemmas on a daily basis (and then often berated about their decisions by doctors, lawyers, parents, foster parents, judges, supervisors, and worst of all supervisors’ supervisors who were not on the ground looking children in the eyes). All of this, in addition to knowing that when you remove a child from a broken home it is likely that their life will get worse, is enough to destroy even the most amazing social worker.
I know it is really hard to face an employee who is on the verge of mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical collapse, but you cannot fix a broken system by reading reports.
And then there is the cherry on top of all this: about six months into my work, we were informed that social workers can be held personally liable for the deaths of children.
Have you been one of these social workers? Are you there now? I know that there are children to save, but I also want you to know that your life is just as important. Looking back, I wish I had had the courage to refuse to write reports on Christmas Eve because any employer who would fire me for that, is not an employer I want to support. Our lives are more important than paperwork and sometimes the best course of action is to #IgnoretheRules to save ourselves.
A few months ago I returned to that office to invite the child protection specialists to my self care workshop. I discovered that the mountains are now obscured by an apartment complex. And guess what?! Not a single child protection specialist attended the workshop. They were probably working on their reports.
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