Healing: Promising Mental Health + Medical Trends

What Others’ Trauma Leaves Behind

The American Counseling Association’s Traumatology Interest Network (2014) defines vicarious trauma as “the emotional residue from hearing other people’s trauma stories and becoming witness to the pain, fear, and terror the trauma survivor endured” (Network, 2014).  Being witness to another’s pain can cause us to see the world differently.  Individuals working with, and hearing the stories of people who have experienced trauma can internalize the impact and suffer silently.  Or some externalize it, impacting their co-workers and the families they work with. Many simply leave the field.

Child abuse professionals know firsthand the impact their work can have on staff and teams. Vicarious trauma affects individuals that are exposed to the trauma of others and in child welfare organizations, where staff are repeatedly exposed to the stories of child abuse, it can be considered an occupational hazard (Bride, Radney, & Figley, 2007; van Veen, 2012).

In recent years, Children’s Advocacy Centers have promoted self-care of the individual as a way to combat vicarious trauma and burnout. However, little has been discussed regarding the ways in which not only can the individual build resiliency, but the organizations can put in to place practices and policies that foster resiliency in the workforce. In an effort to help professionals employed at child welfare organizations combat the effects of vicarious trauma, programs must be put in place to help staff build resiliency. The federal government’s Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center (OVCTTAC) offers such a program.  The program, developed by Karen Kalergis at the University of Texas Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault,-is called “Building Resiliency in Child Abuse Organizations.”  It puts in place the groundwork to begin building resiliency in the workforce.  It is a program that the National Children’s Alliance (NCA) and Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) have helped to pilot, promote, and have embraced.

NCA became invested in the “Building Resiliency” training out of a growing concern for high rates of turnover in Children’s Advocacy Center staff and Multidisciplinary Team members and the lack of a system-wide evidence-based response to trauma exposure. Given that and the accumulating evidence regarding the impact of chronic trauma exposure, NCA’s most recently revised National Standards for Accreditation for Children’s Advocacy Centers include identification and response to vicarious trauma. In fact, the “Building Resiliency” training aligns with the Organizational Capacity Standard, which requires CACs to promote the multi-disciplinary teams “well-being by promoting access to training and information on vicarious trauma and building resiliency”. Children’s Advocacy Centers have an important role in the strengthening the functioning of the multi-disciplinary team.

NCA has chosen to promote this particular curriculum because it not only creates a “culture” of resiliency, but it is also based on a thorough literature review that evaluated the factors that make people most resilient. It is not surprising that the literature supports the notion that a positive organizational climate impacts both the quality and the outcomes of service delivery (Glisson & Green, 2011). This strengths-based approach includes five core elements of Resiliency:  Self-Knowledge, Sense of Hope, Healthy Coping, Strong Relationships, and Personal Perspective and Meaning. These elements are used as a foundation for an organizational model that uses policies, supervisory techniques, and training to implement specific strategies that support resiliency. An example of one of the training components is the focus on effective supervision. It is vitally important to retain the well-trained and experienced child welfare workforce.  And the cornerstone of retention is the supervisory relationship (Yankeelov, et.al. 2009). This supervisory relationship is a catalyst for regular evaluation of employee functioning, routine discussions of healthy coping, and adaptation of the work environment as needed to support healthy coping.

NCA continues to train on and support the Building Resiliency model as an effective way to build a culture of resiliency in children’s advocacy centers. National Children’s Alliance has featured this training at its Urban Forum (for the largest CACs in the country), held sessions at the annual NCA Leadership Conference, and presented at a variety of child welfare conferences. We continue to look for new ways to assist Children’s Advocacy Centers in shifting their focus from simply raising awareness of vicarious training to creating a culture of resiliency within these organizations. We must build resilient organizations that model the resiliency that is so critical for the children and families we serve. For more information regarding this training, visit www.ovcttac.gov/ResiliencyTBR.

Kimberly Day, MSW, is deputy director of National Children’s Alliance, where she directs organizational operations and is highly involved in the national child welfare public policy arena. Prior to her tenure at NCA, she coordinated efforts of the National Coalition to End Child Abuse Deaths in Washington, D.C., and served more than 20 years as a child welfare social worker and leader. Kim received her master’s degree from the University of Maine.



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Dunkley, J., & Whelan, T. A. (2006). Vicarious traumatisation: Current status and future directions. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 34(1), 107-116. doi: 10.1080/03069880500483166

Glisson, C., and Green, P. (2011). Organizational climate, services, and outcomes in child welfare systems, Child Abuse and Neglect, 35 (7), 582–591.

Koeske, G. F., and Koeske, R.D. (1989). Work load and burnout:  Can social support and perceived accomplishments help?  Social Work, 34, 243–248.

Network, A. C. A. T. I. (2014). Fact Sheet #9 Vicarious trauma. American Counseling Association.

van Veen, S. (2012). What happens when workers are exposed to traumatic material?  Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress and burnout. Vicarious Trauma Assessment Toolkit for Violence Against Women, 1-15.

Yankeelov, P. A., Barbee, A. P., Sullivan, D., and Antle, B. F. (2009). Individual and organizational factors in job retention in Kentucky’s child welfare agency. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 547–554.