An Unknown in the Opioid-Child Welfare Nexus: Use By Workers

As The Imprint was recently rolling out a series of stories on how child welfare systems respond to drug addiction, Youth Services Insider read a great piece about how the worsening opioid epidemic was affecting another industry.

Our friend Laura Hayes, the food editor for the Washington City Paper, reported on how restaurants were dealing with the use of heroin and other hard drugs by their employees, particularly the kitchen staff.

One restaurateur told Hayes that he openly saw one of his dishwashers with a bag of heroin, and told her the following:

I didn’t know what to do because I was in a bad situation. If I tell him to get out of the kitchen, I’m short-handed for the day. But if I leave him in the kitchen, what am I doing?

The owner let the dishwasher stay, although the next day he stopped reporting for work anyway.

Hayes’ article brought something into specific relief for YSI. We focused our series entirely on drug-related struggles of parents, the principal client of intervention services in the child welfare system. We never really considered the impact of rising opioid use within the ranks of the providers.

Restaurants can be stressful places to work, and kitchens are the ultimate deadline-based industry. Make five meals, get ready to make another five. And more than likely, you’ll only hear about the meals that got screwed up.

Sound familiar in pattern? Child welfare caseworkers are on the frontlines, often with too many cases, trying to check off the boxes while also having a meaningful role in the lives of families in crisis. The best caseworkers will see scores of families fail to reunify, or only do so after much hardship. And the primary way in which system gets attention for the effort is when a child known to it dies.

It is foolish to think that workers in this system are immune to the draw of drugs simply because they have social work training and a front row seat to the devastating effects. They operate in a high-stress, emotional profession.

Lucy Tosti, a retired Sacramento case worker YSI interviewed for the series, said she relied on dancing and the arts to keep her balanced from the stress of the job. She also said she “totally” thinks some of her former colleagues relied on drugs, particularly the prescription variety.

“I’ve always thought that social workers had to be coping some kind of way,” said Tosti. “I miss the work, being with families. But the stress involved … It’s hard to work that hard and see families not change.”

This is all to say that drug use by child welfare workers is not something that we have covered, nor have we seen it covered elsewhere. But we at The Imprint are interested, and we’re looking for input. E-mail jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org with any thoughts.

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