Vicarious Trauma in Child Welfare Workers

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Table of Contents

  • Study Purpose & Literature Review
  • Study Designs & Methods
  • Sampling & Data Collection
  • Procedural Rigor & Data Analysis
  • Theoretical Connection
  • References

Study Purpose & Literature Review

The purpose of this study was to look at Vicarious Trauma, and how it affects employees of the child welfare system. Vicarious Trauma, also termed with the abbreviation VT, means "the taking in of experiences, emotions and reactions of trauma survivors" (Dombo & Blome, 2016). Researchers Eileen Anne Dombo and Wendy Whiting Blome, discuss caseworkers and how the constant exposure to children that have been abused can take a toll on the caseworkers leading to what can be considered "compassion fatigue" or a feeling of anxiety due to taking care of others (2016). Though this sounds like what is typically known as burnout, it is important to note that Vicarious Trauma, is specific to those who work with a vulnerable population. Since child protection services deals with the abuse and neglect of children, their client base is considered to make up part of the vulnerable population that is vital for distinguishing between VT and burnout. Furthermore, research shows the effects of VT causing a disconnect between caseworkers and clients (Dombo & Blome, 2016). Most know that high demands, high stress and low pay are reasons that turnover rates are seemingly high in the child welfare system. Work environment, supervision, and the de-professionalization of child welfare agency employees are increasing at alarming rates. Though there are multiple studies that discuss these topics, the current literature fails to connect what the leaders of the child welfare industry think about the workforce crisis and vicarious trauma (Bombo & Blome, 2016)

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Study Designs & Methods

Using an Exploratory qualitative research design, researches, Bombo and Blome, aimed to investigate organizational responses to vicarious trauma in relation to child welfare agencies (2016). The researchers designed the study to ask the following questions:

  • How does the leadership of child welfare organizations conceptualize vicarious trauma and its connection to worker burnout and turnover?
  • What are child welfare organizations doing to address vicarious trauma among their workers?
  • How do child welfare organizations respond to critical incidents? Is there a relationship between this response and vicarious trauma in workers? (Bombo & Blome, 2016).

These questions were sent out by email. The email included the purpose of the study and invited the participants to take part in the interview (Bombo & Blome, 2016). Due to the involvement of human subjects, there was an informed consent form that was accepted by and approved by the Catholic University of America Committee (Bombo & Blome, 2016).

Sampling & Data Collection

Bombo and Blome designed this study to specifically include only directors of child welfare agencies and exclude all other employees. According to Depoy and Gitlin, this type of sampling is known as homogenous selection, an approach to choosing sources that are similar, such as humans with similar experiences (2015). The researchers went through the Department of Health and Human Services to find regions in which the researchers could get in touch with directors to use in their study. Each region was contacted by phone and email until someone agreed to the interview (Bombo & Blome, 2016). Each participant was asked eight questions about their education/background and ten questions related to the agency they work at.

Bombo and Blome conducted the interviews by speakerphone, and each participant was informed that their answers were to be recorded and transcribed afterwards (2016). Depoy and Gitlin advise that it is important for transcriptions to be "completed immediately or shortly after the completion of an interview", this keeps the integrity of the interview (pg. 314). This type of data recording also shows procedural rigor. Each interview was divided into two separate parts. The first part of the interviews focused on six open-ended questions that dealt specifically with a critical incident and how the agency responded to said incident (Bombo & Blome, 2016). The researchers probed their participant by asking them to "think about the last or a recent critical incident that has occurred in your jurisdiction" (Bombo & Blome, 2016).

After their responses, the researchers asked a series of questions about how the agency dealt with the situation. The Second part of the interview was directed towards the administrator's knowledge about vicarious trauma. This part of the interview included twelve open-ended questions that regarded "how the administrator viewed the effects of vicarious trauma, how it impacted their staff, and whether VT is included in pre-service and in-service training" (Bombo & Blome, 2016). It is important to realize that the goal of qualitative research is not to generalize a population, but to have a deep understanding of the phenomena that is occurring.

Procedural Rigor & Data Analysis

Procedural rigor is defined as a way the researchers collect and keep track of their data that represents the "whole" picture (Law et al. 1998). For this study, Bombo and Blome taped the interviews and had the interviews transcribed by their student research assistant, then it was revised by the lead research to ensure accuracy (2016). The researchers chose a thematic analysis because it shows flexibility and allows the researchers to use the experience of their participants to guide their data analysis (Bombo & Blome, 2016). To decrease bias and improve credibility of data analysis, Bombo and Blome consistently went back to review the original transcribed interviews and participated in self-reflections (2016). In attempts to prove transferability and authenticity, the researchers interviewed leaders of child welfare organizations across 10 regions (Bombo & Blombo, 2016). Their goal was to disrupt any chance of over-representation of certain regions in the country, however, since the researchers did not have a representative for every state in the region, they were not fully able to prove transferability and authenticity (Bombo & Blome, 2016).

The results showed that most administrators have noticed vicarious trauma and its effects on their workers, it is noted that these effects may contribute to high turnover rates in the agency, but this issue is overlooked and does not acquire organizational attention (Bombo & Blome, 2016). The attitude that these social workers need to deal with vicarious trauma, shows that there is a disconnect with the organization and their employees.

Theoretical Connection

"Grounded theory is a method in naturalistic research that is used primarily to generate theory… The researcher begins with a broad interest in a particular topic area and then collects relevant information about the topic" (Depoy & Gitlin, 2015). Grounded theory is used as the theoretical connection in this study due to the way the researchers conducted it. They started with the idea of vicarious trauma and its effects on employees and ended up with an organizational representation, showing the lack of options and solutions for caseworkers that may be experiencing symptoms of VT. Without help, these caseworkers will not effectively be able to do their job and connect with their clients on the level that is required. A disconnect between client and social worker, leads to lesser feelings of accomplishment that can lead to burnout and high turnover rates, if not addressed (Bombo & Blome, 2016).


  1. Anne Dombo, E. dombo@cua. ed., & Whiting Blome, W. (2016). Vicarious Trauma in Child Welfare Workers: A Study of Organizational Responses. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 10(5), 505–523.
  2. Depoy, E. & Gitlin, L. (2015). Introduction to research: Understanding and applying multiple strategies (5th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

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