After nearly a decade on the job, Jenny Bilskie began to think of doing what many in her profession do: quitting.
Her workload with the Arizona Department of Child Safety a few years back was “out of control,” she said. And she felt increasingly overwhelmed by the child abuse and child neglect cases she was overseeing.
“I was a supervisor at that point and I just lived with this fear, day in and day out, that something terrible was going to happen on one of those cases,” she said. “What happened for me is I had a personality shift. I turned into this person who was bitter and angry and frustrated, and this was all born of this sense of total helplessness.”
Bilskie resisted the strong impulse to leave and instead began looking at how people in other high-stress jobs stick with it. She discovered peer support programs and how police officers, firefighters and medical professionals stick with their work even when the job is extremely challenging.
The result of this research is a program the Department of Child Safety launched in mid-May. Called the Workforce Resilience Program, it pairs employees with trained volunteer colleagues who provide support mostly through listening. Bilskie, who lives in Phoenix, coordinates the statewide program.
“Child welfare workers frequently experience secondary trauma as part of their daily routines,” she said, referring to the emotional duress caseworkers sometimes experience by hearing about other people’s traumatic experiences.
“Oftentimes, our workers don’t recognize how this trauma affects them until it’s too late, and they become overwhelmed.”
The employee turnover rate for caseworkers and investigators with DCS was about 37 percent in February; in August it was 32 percent.
It’s too soon to say if this new program is helping with employee retention, but that’s a goal.
During the last two weeks of May, Bilskie said, the new DCS program received about 50 requests for help from caseworkers and investigators statewide. In June, there were 40 and in July and August, another 50 each month.
There are 37 volunteer peer supporters in DCS statewide, with four in Tucson.
One of the peer supporters here is Dave Norman, who has been working for DCS about three and a half years as both an investigator and a case manager.
Norman worked in law enforcement on the East Coast before moving to Tucson. He said he tried to set up a similar program there but his supervisors resisted because they didn’t think the conversations with peer supporters should be kept confidential.
That’s a key aspect of the new DCS program, he said, adding that people need to know what they share will stay private.
“If you have that resistance (from supervisors), you are not going to have people reach out to you,” he said.
While confidentiality is a key part of the DCS plan, Bilskie said, suicidal or violent thoughts require bringing in professional help.
“If someone knows this information is not going to be shared, then they are more likely to get the help that they need,” she said. “The idea is not to show up and fix what’s going on, but instead to just hold this safe space for the person to find their own answers.”
Most of the time, people reach out on their own. But when there’s been a really difficult case, program volunteers might contact the caseworkers and investigators and ask if they need support, Bilskie said.
Heidy Willmes said the location of her DCS desk lends itself well to having visits from colleagues, as may have to pass her desk several times each day.
That easy rapport is what she wants to provide, as a peer supporter.
Wilmes has worked for DCS for the last three and a half years, with posts including program manager, investigations and liaison between the agency and Banner-University Medical Center.
“It felt natural to be part of this team,” she said. “I wanted to help more workers.”