Child protection workers in Estonia are not well protected

Celebrating Child Protection Day.
Celebrating Child Protection Day. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Child protection workers are often exposed to violence from clients, but their employers rarely provide them with support. This contributes to a high rate of job-related burnout and a high rate of employee attrition.

Kirsi Anneli Vimpari, who defended her master's thesis in social work at the University of Tartu, investigated the types of client violence encountered by child protection workers in Estonia. Previously, the topic had received little attention in the Baltic States.

While foreign studies use focus group interviews to explore this issue, Vimpari chose to conduct one-to-one interviews.

According to the author, child protection workers were eager to participate in the survey and the number of respondents grew quickly. "There were so many of them, that they had to be turned away. Many professionals were willing to share their experiences, which demonstrates that the topic is pertinent and a substantial number of workers are encountering difficulties," she said.

Vimpari said that child protection workers who accept positions already consider the likelihood of confronting troubled families and the possibility of violence. Families do not choose to have a child protection worker in their lives and so do not interact with them voluntarily.

Vimpari explained that while in training to become a child protection worker, specialists are told that the position entails a number of dangers, but it is only on the job that they actually find out on their own how to deal with them.

The survey showed that there are both child protection workers who experience violence only occasionally and those who encounter it on a daily basis.

Typically, the parents of the child with whom the specialist interacts are the aggressors; while the child is officially the client, in truth the entire family is.

Personal life in the spotlight

Psychological violence that can take many forms, is the most common type of aggression encountered by child protection workers.

Vimpar said that the most stressful situation is when personal lives of people have to be controlled. "Some client families are extremely resourceful when it comes to finding ways to make the child protection worker appear small. They also attack professionally and create the impression that the individual is performing poorly. It ultimately affects who you are as a person," she said.

The most severe cases for child protection workers themselves, according to the survey, involve family threats. "They say, 'I know where your children go to school and where your husband works, so something might happen to them.' All of this is very disturbing for people who in the profession," Vimpar said.

In the study, one child protection worker mentioned how she feels she has to glance over her shoulder at nights. "They can absorb you in such a way that you start to get really scared," they said.

Some parents also have concerns with the child protection worker

Vimpar said that the issues have gone to court in some situations. "In most of these cases, the worker is not found guilty," she added. Child protection workers are usually professional and follow the rules, but if a client wants to intimidate further, they take matters to court. "All of this has an enormous adverse effect on the social workers," Vimpar said.

There are also constant media threats. "When you work in a profession for a while, you become accustomed to such attacks," she said. "Some people learn not to take things personally, but you will still experience a difficulty on occasion."

"The other thing is whether child protection workers actually want to get used to that," she asked.

One interviewee said to be consumed by work also during their free time. "I do not yet have a superpower that could help me to finish my job at 5:30 p.m. The emotional and physical exhaustion and worries comes home with me," the social worker explained.

One child protection worker said that she makes a personal safety plan before every home visit. "It is a good example of how professional practice evolves; this is not something you learn in schooling but rather something you put together in your own work," she said.

Employees would also like their managers to provide more expert assistance

According to the survey, some child protection employees did not receive any assistance from their managers, while others were offered a variety of opportunities that they desired or needed. In other words, the system is not uniform throughout Estonia.

There is a high turnover rate in the field as a result of the occupation's difficulty, the enormous workload and the frequent absence of supervision. Vimpari said that this is the most critical problem.

The study also revealed that child protection workers want more training on how to handle challenging situations. Some could involve their managers, while other ways could involve a working collaboration with the police. "When child protection workers make home visits, they have to be prepared for various situations and keep in mind all potential dangers. Some of them involve the police," Vimpari explained.

Another issue, according to Vimpari, is that child protection workers in Estonia are part of municipal government, where the leaders are elected politicians. "A child protection worker could be managed by a politician who may or may not have social field expertise," she explained.

"In this line of work, you will face difficult situations, difficult experiences and people. One should hope that their working environment would be positive and encouraging so that child protection workers can do their best to improve the lives of children and their families," she said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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