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How one child welfare agency copes with burnout among its social workers

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Burnout and high turnover are two serious problems facing child protective workers. But an organization here is making progress in coping with them. Its success is based on careful staff selection and on-the-job support. The workers deal with children whom adults, generally their parents, are accused of abusing or neglecting.

SCAN, the Supportive Child and Adult Network Inc., seeks to aid the parents of children judged abused or neglected, so the youngsters will not have to be removed from their families and the parents will not abuse their children again.

The burnout and high staff-turnover problems are related but are not identical. Linda A. Wolf, associate executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, says burnout is ``like battle fatigue'' and is ``an occupational hazard for people in helping professions.''

Often, Ms. Wolf says, idealistic people enter these professions, are then subjected to never-ending pressures, and lose their idealism and, eventually, ``their capacity to help.'' Many, saying they no longer care about their jobs, leave. This burnout is one reason for the high turnover rate (in some cities it's reported to be more than 50 percent a year) that can seriously hamper social welfare agencies.

Nationwide figures are difficult to come by. But experts in the social-service professions identify these as major problems in several fields, particularly among child protective workers.

Other professionals who feel burned out remain in the job, Wolf says, but ``distance themselves'' from the people they are supposed to help. ``They become the stereotypical bureaucrats,'' who move paper around but seem totally unconcerned about the welfare of the people they are supposed to aid.

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