• Article
  • Oct 07 2020

UK Social Work Study Measures COVID-19 Distress Among Child Welfare Workers

Stock photo of someone sitting with their head in their hands

For several months, social workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic — working tirelessly to ensure the health and well-being of the communities and families they serve.

And it’s been a challenging task.

COVID-19 has created a storm of factors that will almost certainly lead to an increase in unreported cases of child abuse and neglect. As school closures remain in effect, at-risk children are cut off from helping professionals.

At the same time, vital parts of the child welfare system are still under immense strain. From mandatory court appearances to home-based parenting programs, the pandemic is making it more difficult to serve children, families and communities.

Ultimately, those difficulties can impact the individuals doing the work. 

The College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky conducted the first-known study to examine COVID-19 peritraumatic distress among nearly 2,000 child welfare workers across Kentucky. 

Peritraumatic distress is defined as the emotional and physiological distress experienced during and/or immediately after a traumatic event. It is associated with the development and severity of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related psychological difficulties.

“We know that child welfare work, in general, can be stressful. That point has been well-established through research,” Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, explained. “With this study, we wanted to assess peritraumatic distress explicitly connected to COVID-19 to shed light on how to better support child welfare workers.”  

Results indicate that child welfare workers are experiencing above normal ranges of stress. In fact, nearly 50% of all participants are suffering from mild to severe peritraumatic distress related to COVID-19.

Additionally, findings showed participants who are in good physical health, married and more financially stable are less stressed than others.

“This study affirms notions that different practitioner groups experience, and are impact by, COVID-19 differently,” Miller said. “Therefore, cookie-cutter approaches to addressing challenges associated with COVID-19 distress may not be effective.” 

Nationally, the need for child and family social workers continues to rise. In fact, it’s estimated that job openings in the field are projected to grow 10%-14% between 2014–2026 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016).

In recent years, social services have struggled with rising caseloads, shrinking staff and detrimental budget cuts. Additionally, COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the greater need for advocates to help children entering the welfare system.

“Child welfare social workers are vital to the well-being of young people, families and communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Miller continued. “This study truly underscores the need for creative solutions to support these practitioners — not only during COVID-19, but always.”

To help students become well-rounded practitioners, the CoSW offers a wide array of certificates, including a Child Welfare Certificate. To learn more about those programs, you can visit the college website.

Additionally, you can apply for the Child Welfare Certificate online. For more information or questions, contact Kalea Benner.