December 2012/ January 2013
Supervisors and Secondary Trauma: It Can Happen to You, Too


It's reasonably safe to assume no one in the business of protecting children would ever deny the emotional toll that comes with this work:  sadness, fatigue, grief, anger, guilt, difficulty listening, thinking and committing things to memory. If you were ever a caseworker, undoubtedly you've experienced it at least once and possibly many times.  As a supervisor, you've likely seen it time and again with your staff. Also as a supervisor, it's likely you've offered staff your support, empathized with them, and tried to help them work through difficult situations. The "it" we're talking about here is "secondary trauma" or compassion fatigue. There's also something known as "vicarious trauma" which occurs after an accumulation of exposure to the trauma of others. When experiencing vicarious trauma, one's sense of trust, esteem, control, safety, and intimacy are significantly compromised.


Most of the child welfare literature on secondary or vicarious trauma addresses the issue from the perspective of caseworkers who have direct contact with children and families. The majority of the material on supervisors and trauma is an examination of their responsibilities to:

  • identify trauma in their staff
  • seek ways to alleviate the trauma in their staff
  • ensure the quality of professional services to clients does not deteriorate


Do you realize you too can fall victim to secondary and/or vicarious trauma? Line supervisors in particular can experience this. After all, to do your job effectively, you must have an in-depth understanding of the children and families being served by your staff. You make important, potentially life altering decisions based on what you know about these families. You may have to assign staff to cases where there's a history of violence or mental illness, or you may know very little about a family before the case is assigned, and later learn how troubled they were. Is it any wonder then that a child death, a serious injury from abuse, an assault on one of your staff, or hearing of a threat made against you could cause you to experience feelings of trauma?


Let's be very clear here. Secondary and/or vicarious trauma is a very real and a very common product of working in this field. Feeling traumatized is certainly not an indictment of weakness or failure to be professional.


If and when you find yourself unable to function in your usual manner, it's important to get the help you need. Or, if others express their concern about the changes they see in you, listen to them.

  • Go to your supervisor for support.
  • Ask for a referral to a counselor.
  • If you already have a therapist, make an appointment to talk about what's happening.
  • If necessary, take time off or ask for a temporary reduction or change of job responsibilities. 

The temptation may be strong to handle things on your own, or tough it out until the bad feelings merely go away. If you're thinking "What's the worst that could happen if I don't address my own trauma?", it might be that you become physically ill, or that you begin making poor financial choices. Your relationships at home and/or with co-workers might suffer. You may not have the energy it takes to carry out your job responsibilities. What's the absolute worst? If you're unable to think and act as you normally would, your "blank out" times or your preoccupations might impede your reaction time while driving, increasing the likelihood for an accident causing injury or death to a stranger, a family member, or to yourself. Or you might make a case decision that results in irreversible consequences for a child or caseworker.

Are these risks worth it? You owe it to yourself, your staff, your friends and family, and the families you serve to seek out support and assistance.


The bottom line?  You need to take care of you.


Want to learn more about Secondary or Vicarious Trauma?

1. Attend the OCWTP one-hour distance learning on Wednesday, January 23 at Noon or on Tuesday, February 5 at 10:00 a.m.

2. Check out this self-directed online learning activity at the Child Trauma Academy- The Cost of Caring
3. Secondary Traumatic Stress: A fact sheet for child serving professionals.  This resource was created by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  To access, click here.

 Ask a Supervisor

 Ask a Supervisors

This segment is devoted to helping supervisors meet the challenges of the job.  The questions will come from you, child welfare supervisors. If you have a challenge you'd like us to address, email us at



It seems supervisors are expected to deal with critical, traumatic issues and not need assistance or support. Although many supervisors take pride in being able to cope with the horrible things they see and experience, there is a real impact on their emotional and physical health. Supervisors are expected to help their staff with trauma, but all too often it seems administration puts the responsibility solely on [supervisors] to handle their own self-care. I think it's important for agencies to support supervisors because, like workers, they too experience secondary trauma.


 What are other supervisors and agencies doing to address secondary trauma for caseworkers and supervisors? 


We've checked around and learned of a few efforts going on in our state. For example:

  • Franklin County Children Services is having a special agency-wide initiative on secondary trauma. They're planning an all-day event for all staff.
  • Greene County Children Services developed a program in which all new caseworkers meet and establish a relationship with a counselor who specializes in secondary trauma issues before they have a caseload or a crisis to deal with. The idea behind this was to allow for a relationship and baseline to form before a problem arises. Once the inevitable occurred, the caseworker would have somebody they could trust to confidentially turn to. The hope was that this would lessen the stigma of "needing help" and allow for a healthier environment after the new caseworker experienced trauma on the job.
  • Lucas County Children Services provides training on natural disasters.
  • Cuyahoga County Children Services offers individual or group counseling with licensed therapists.
  • Some agencies offer crisis or critical incident stress de-briefings.

We've also heard suggestions for other ways to address secondary trauma:


  • The Human Resources Group of the Public Children Services Agency of Ohio (PCSAO) would be a good resource to address this issue.
  • Agencies need to establish support groups that respond when a tragedy has occurred and/or who's available for us to go to when we feel the need to talk to someone.



Is your agency doing something to help you and your staff with secondary trauma? If so and you'd like to share it, we'd love to hear from you. Please contact



Want to learn more about secondary trauma and supervision?  Join us at our upcoming one-hour distance learning session for supervisors on vicarious trauma.  Two options are available-- Wednesday, January 23 at Noon or Tuesday, February 5 at 10:00 a.m.  Registration is available via E-track.



In This Issue
Supervisors and Secondary Trauma
Ask a Supervisor
Supervisor Distance Learning
Ringing in the New Year
Supervisors Present to PCSAO Executives
Supervisor Survey
Educational Supervision

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Other Ways the OCWTP is Working for You...

Join the Conversation: Attend a one-hour distance learning about vicarious trauma.


Best Practice in Child Welfare Supervision: Vicarious Trauma


In January 2013, the OCWTP is piloting a one-hour distance learning for supervisors. This distance learning activity will be facilitated by an expert on vicarious trauma.  Supervisors will be able to access the distance learning from their desk and join a facilitated dialogue about vicarious trauma with supervisors from around the state.


The learning activity will give supervisors an opportunity to share and learn from one another about

  • managing your own secondary/vicarious trauma,
  • strategies for promoting an agency environment to attend to needs that arise from vicarious trauma, and
  • helping workers manage their vicarious trauma

Two sessions will be offered.  The first will be held Wednesday, January 23 at Noon and the second will be held Tuesday, February 5 at 10:00 a.m.. To register, log in to E-track and search for the title "Best Practice in Child Welfare Supervision".  There, you will be given a choice to register for the session on January 23 or on February 5. 


Don't know how to log-in to E-track?  Click here for access to training materials.


Space is limited, so register soon!

Ringing in the New Year!


The Ohio Child Welfare Training Program (OCWTP) knows supervisors are the critical link to child welfare best practice, and the Supervisor Work Team has been committed to working with PCSAs to identify, develop, and deliver learning activities and resources to support supervisors' practice and to meet their individual learning needs. The Work Team worked hard over the past 12 months to respond to the needs of PCSA supervisors in Ohio by:


* Disseminating several editions of The Forum, a supervisor newsletter

 1. Using Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

2. Achieve Balanced Supervision

3. Boosting Staff Morale


* Launching the Supervisor Station webpage at


As we look forward to 2013, the OCWTP and Supervisor Work Team have identified several possible, additional learning opportunities for supervisors. Keep your eyes and ears open for more information regarding these opportunities for supervisors:

  • Quarterly, one-hour Distance Learning Guided Application and Practice (GAP)Sessions
  • A Southwestern Ohio Supervisor Conference in Spring 2013
  • PCSAO and OCWTP are discussing the possibility of developing a supervisor specific track at the annual PCSAO Conference
  • Regional supervisor GAP sessions
  • A Transcending Differences Supervisor Guide
Supervisors Present to PCSAO Executive Membership



The following members of the OCWTP Supervisor Work Team presented at the December 7, PCSAO Executive Membership Meeting. They did a fantastic job sharing the information and describing the issues!



  • Darlene Baad, Summit County
  • Valerie Carpico, Fairfield County
  • Vince Ciola, Logan County
  • Jeff Schafer, Cuyahoga County
  • Ben Hannah, Southwest Ohio Regional Training Center


    The goal of the presentation was to educate child welfare administrators about the common learning needs supervisors share and to bring many supervisor-specific learning resources to their attention.   Want to learn more about these resources and needs?  Click here.




    Hear from you  

    We are seeking your input about the supervisor newsletter and other OCWTP learning activities.  Please take a moment to give us your feedback.  The information will be used to tailor the newsletter to best meet your needs and to help OCWTP plan supervisor learning activities.

    Please click here to take a brief survey.
    Questions or Comments about the newsletter? 

    Educational Supervision:  Sequencing
    Learning Opportunities


    "Nan:  I'll take over this interview for you..."  I heard those dreaded words when, as a brand new caseworker, I was up to my eyeballs in an interview that was going very badly.  I had been using reflective listening, which I had learned and practiced in my undergraduate social work classes. However, it was not working with this client.  In fact this technique was only escalating her anger and irrationality. 


    What went wrong?  I had missed a critical stage in the learning process.  While I had learned about the need to use interviewing strategies to engage clients in conversation, and the specific steps in this technique, and even practiced those skills, I had not yet learned exactly when and how to apply that technique in my work.   I was using a technique that was totally inappropriate for the situation, because I just didn't know any better.


    Adult learning follows a predictable sequence called levels of learning: awareness, knowledge/understanding, application to the job, and skill development.  If any of the steps are skipped, not adequately addressed, or taught out of sequence, the learning will be incomplete - with potentially disastrous results.


    What's the point for supervisors?  Supervisors need to match their educational supervision or coaching strategies to their workers' level of learning.   For example, talking to workers about a new concept helps them further understand and retain the information, but does not help them develop skill in using that concept.  On the other hand, asking them to practice a skill (whether it be a thinking or behavioral skill) before they have thought through how to use the skill on the job is a set-up for failure.


    Sequencing on-the-job learning interventions is critical to your role in educational supervision and developing your workers' skills.   To learn more about sequencing learning interventions and specific supervisory interventions for each level of learning, please check out this link.


    Oh, and the rest of the story?  It turns out this client was on the verge of a psychotic break. My wise supervisor was able to recognize the symptoms and together we facilitated admission into a psychiatric unit and arranged for kinship care for her son.