Child protection services and work-related stress
: effective organisational responses and child welfare workers' experiences of secondary trauma

  • Ionnie A. Henry

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Working with child victims of abuse is both challenging and rewarding. On the
one hand, professionals deal with complex cases, and vicariously experience
society’s most depraved and heinous behaviours directed towards children they work with. On the other hand, they experience a sense of joy from witnessing victims rebuilding their lives after the abuse. Additionally, the intensity of the work and those repeated vicarious interactions may leave professionals feeling emotionally exhausted. Indeed, the literature acknowledges that working in the child abuse arena is challenging, and inherently can impact on professionals’ work performance and personal well-being. The latter has received a lot of attention, resulting in many conceptualisations behind the idea of work-related stress and trauma. Much of this research has taken place internationally, predominantly in the US.
Whilst it is widely accepted in the literature that Secondary Trauma (ST) is a
risk factor toward professionals’ well-being, little is known about what mechanisms of support are available to remediate the impact of the work, what is effective in reducing the negative emotional impact of the work, and how professionals feel they need in terms of adequate support. The purpose of the present thesis was, therefore, to provide a more in-depth understanding of the effectiveness of existing organisational support from an international perspective but also gauging the workers themselves, with a focus on Child Sexual Exploitation’s (CSE) workers. This programme of research comprised of a systematic review (Study 1) and a qualitative study (Study 2). The idea behind conducting a systematic review was to get an idea of current practice and tested interventions on an international basis, whereas the qualitative study was designed to give a voice to CSE’s professionals and get an in-depth assessment of the support mechanisms used in practice.
The first study, using a literature-based approach, systematically reviewed the
international literature around the interventions offered to professionals working with child victims of abuse. Out of the 52 papers included full text screening, only eight were deemed relevant and suitable to address the aims of study. The results indicated that organisations either take an insight-oriented or action-oriented approach to interventions. Whilst change that are insight-oriented, such as offering supervision or training to deal with ST, is easier and cheaper to implement, it is not sufficient on its own. To better respond to the issue of work-related stress and ST, it is important to develop more action focused intervention strategies that have the potential to shift the current organisational culture towards a shared ownership of accountability.
The second study was designed to respond to the current lack of evidence
concerning what professionals are currently being offered in UK child sexual
exploitation teams and what they feel would be most effective in supporting their needs. Eight semi-structured interviews were conducted and later analysed using Braun and Clarke (2019) reflexive thematic analysis approach. The findings revealed that the organisation sampled do offer effective support (i.e., supervision, training, systemic practices, and reflective space). However, it does not seem to be sufficient, since participants also reported putting in place additional support, outside the organisation, to have the necessary space to unload.
Overall, this thesis has unveiled that previous research has over-emphasised
on discussing the similarities and differences of many strain constructs around ST and its prevalence, to the detriment of exploring more specifically what can be done to reduce its prevalence. By reviewing the existing evidence and gauging the professionals’ voices, this programme of research has identified that organisational support and self-help are both necessary to act as buffers against ST. However, effective organisational intervention requires a shift from a culture of blame to a culture where employees at all levels of the organisation are receptive to change so that the relevant support mechanisms can be put in place to achieve those changes
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDominic Pearson (Supervisor), Adrian Paul Charles Needs (Supervisor) & Axelle Philippon (Supervisor)

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