Study: How secondary traumatic stress affects public child welfare workers

Published November 21, 2023


Jangmin Kim

Jangmin Kim.

Social workers, therapists and others in the helping professions may experience secondary traumatic stress (STS) as they engage with clients who have experienced trauma. For those who work in child welfare organizations, the impact of STS can vary significantly based on the individual's role, according to new research led by Jangmin Kim, PhD, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

Kim and his colleagues published their study, “Secondary Traumatic Stress and Public Child Welfare Workers’ Intention to Remain Employed in Child Welfare: The Interaction Effect of Job,” in Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance. 

Kim's co-authors were Barbara Pierce, PhD, professor in the Indiana University School of Social Work, and Tae Kyung Park, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.


High exposure to secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a significant risk factor for public child welfare workers’ intention to remain employed in child welfare. This study examined whether the negative impact of STS differed according to workers’ job functions by analyzing survey data collected from 1,053 public child welfare workers.

STS was negatively associated with workers’ intention to remain. Furthermore, the negative impact of STS was greater among ongoing case managers than among assessment case managers. We conclude that child welfare organizations should develop trauma-informed policies and organizational support targeted to different patterns of STS by job functions.

Practice Points

  • Child welfare organizations should tailor organizational approaches to prevent STS and mitigate its negative consequences based on the different job functions of case managers, taking into consideration their unique challenges and need
  • Child welfare organizations should offer enhanced support to ongoing case managers due to their higher susceptibility to the adverse effects of STS. 
  • Child welfare organizations should create physically and emotionally safe working environments that allow case managers to address their STS and improve their well-being. 
  • Child welfare organizations should provide training to supervisors and other leaders to recognize the signs of STS and support their workers in managing their stress.
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This research contributes to one of the Grand Challenges for Social Work tackling our nation's toughest social problems: Ensure healthy development for youth.