New Brunswick

Child protection worker says she was traumatized by what she witnessed on the job

In an unprecedented interview that pulls back the curtain on working conditions in New Brunswick’s child protection services, 31-year-old Jacqueline McKnight describes how the job made her sick with fear and despair. 

An overwhelming case load of child abuse and neglect led to PTSD for Jacqueline McKnight

Jacqueline McKnight says she handled 450 investigations in her first three years working for Social Development. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

In an unprecedented interview that pulled back the curtain on working conditions in New Brunswick's child protection services, 31-year-old Jacqueline McKnight described how the job made her sick with fear and despair. 

"I have seen human suffering beyond imagination," said McKnight, who went on leave in February, three years into a vocation she considered a calling. 

"In terms of injuries, maltreatment, human behaviour … we have seen it all, we have smelled it all. We have touched it all. And those things do not leave you when you clock out."

McKnight said she was constantly fearful for the health and safety of children on her watch because there were almost always too many cases to manage.  

She also feared for her own safety, because parents who resented her involvement sometimes lashed out. 

"I enter peoples' lives on their worst days, so I understand why they get upset," she said. "I understand why they're angry and take it out on us."

Trial by fire

McKnight went to work for the Department of Social Development in the western part of the province in January 2018, the same month she graduated with a bachelor's degree in social work from St. Thomas University. 

On her seventh day on the job, she had to remove two very young siblings from their home because of extreme neglect. She then had to testify in court.

"That was the crash course of all crash courses," she said. 

After less than three years of witnessing abuse and neglect, child protection worker says she was diagnosed with PTSD

3 months ago
Duration 8:20
Jacqueline McKnight says social workers are overwhelmed by workload, as well as feelings of fear and guilt. 8:20

About six months into her job and still not fully trained on systems such as the database, McKnight was given more responsibilities, including consulting with co-workers on how to manage high-risk situations. 

She said the files were incredibly complex and "piling up fast." 

"I was feeling it. I was feeling the crunch. I was feeling like I had to be in two places at once."

McKnight said if her region had been fully staffed, it would have meant two teams of six social workers with a supervisor for each team — for a total of about 14 people.

Heavy workloads and staff burnout have been identified as issues in several reports that have looked into child protection in the province. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

But she said the office sometimes ran on half that, because of job vacancies, staff shortages, staff burnout and people on leave for burnout.

It was impossible to ask another social worker for help, because everybody was overstretched all the time. 

"You'd just be creating more burden for someone else."

Impossible decisions

McKnight said it was an ongoing moral dilemma to choose which family to prioritize when so many cases felt urgent. 

"Do you go to the family that's already documented, where you know things are bad? Or, do you go to the family who you haven't laid eyes on yet but it sounds really bad."

There was also built-in agony when deciding whether to leave a child in a home or put that child in foster care. 

A lot of deficient situations are still not severe enough to warrant taking a child from a parent. 

McKnight would feel anxious leaving children in homes lacking in food, clothing and other necessities and would sometimes make emergency purchases with her own money.  

She'd also ruminate about all the damage that might follow when a child had to be removed.

"Removing a child from their family? Nobody wants to do that," she said. "Those are the worst days of our job — the absolute worst days. The literature is clear about how that can impact a child, what that means for their development, especially when they're very young.

"And there are times when you wake up at 3 o'clock and wonder, 'Did I make the right decision? Did I do what was actually best for that child?"

Angry parents

McKnight said the scariest part of her job was going to a home for the first time to investigate a complaint when weapons or drugs were involved. 

"We're looking at extreme amounts of drug activity, a real emphasis on methamphetamine, organized crime and severe addictions and mental health concerns."

Often, she said, she had to go alone, because other social workers were too busy and the police were also too busy. 

McKnight said she had to do 'a lot of mental talk' to get over the fear of being hurt, threatened or intimidated by parents when she came to the door. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

It would take a huge amount of psychological energy just to get the courage to walk up to the door. 

"You are literally walking into the complete and utter unknown," said McKnight, recalling how her heart and mind would race.  

"Are they going to say, 'Get the hell off my property.' Are they going to punch me in the face? Are they going to show me the gun that they have loaded by the door?"

McKnight said she's been shoved, slapped, spit on, and chased by dogs. She's been intimidated and threatened. 

"People would say to me, 'I know where you live' How do you deal with that? Are they bluffing, or are they not bluffing?"

McKnight became so fearful of running into families outside of work, she stopped leaving her home. 

"I was routinely having panic attacks in public places such as grocery stores or Walmart or the park. I could not stomach seeing any reminder of work outside of work. There was something wrong with me."

Eventually, McKnight put her house up for sale, and when she went on a medical leave, she moved to another part of the province. She is still employed by Social Development. 

Job takes tolls on social workers' kids

McKnight does not have children herself but said she has witnessed how the job impacts the families of her co-workers, and it's not healthy.  

Social workers who are parents miss out on time with their own children because they're so preoccupied with the urgent needs of the children in their files, she said. 

They miss their own children's sports, concerts, appointments and activities because their jobs are so unpredictable. 

Social workers may be needed at the hospital, waiting for a doctor to inspect a child's injuries. They may get held up waiting for the police to arrive to provide assistance or conduct a forensic interview. 

McKnight describes the case load social workers are facing as overwhelming, with staff shortages a major issue. (CBC)

"Or it could be negotiating with a family about what we need to see happen before we can leave [the premises] and feel confident that the child is safe," McKnight said. "Or it could be time spent trying to find a foster family.

"You cannot walk away from those situations. It takes as long as it takes. If it takes 24 hours, you work 24 hours. If it takes until 4 a.m., you're there and there's no tradeoff. No one is coming to relieve you."

"They have to choose and the reality from the people I know is that they choose the kids they work with. They don't choose their own families, and their own families suffer." 

Career cut short 

In addition to her fear of leaving the house, McKnight said she developed an eating disorder and compassion fatigue. She even thought of suicide.

"The world of my co-workers is so deeply entrenched in the negative, the sadness, the despair. We don't see the healthy, well-adjusted, taken-care of children because we don't need to."

McKnight felt she was losing her ability to connect with families and establish a rapport. 

"I was having a hard time finding empathy and that scared me. You can't do this job without empathy.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In her accepted claim with WorkSafeNB, her injury is described as one to the "nervous system, e.g. nervous shock, nervous breakdown."

George Savoury said in his November 2018 report that social workers were juggling too many cases. He made more than 100 recommendations to government on how to improve the child protection system. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

McKnight was working for Social Development when consultant George Savoury was hired to conduct a review of the child protection system.

His report, released in November 2018, said "the dilemma of caseload/workload is a very pressing issue with staff in New Brunswick. It was the single most frequent concern in the survey employees completed, and most frequently raised in regional meetings throughout the province."

McKnight said the report inspired hope for more hires, but before she went on leave this year, her office was struggling with some of the worst staffing shortages she had seen. She said the office was half-empty.

The Department of Social Development did not respond to a request for comment on staff shortages and current working conditions. 

Workers get 'shell-shock'

As a social worker in the public sector, McKnight belongs to CUPE Local 1418, which has been without a contract since August 2017.

Because the local is on strike, McKnight was given permission from union leadership to speak about her working conditions.

Shawna Morton, the president of the local, said they've never been worse. 

"In the field of protection, we have seen a revolving door like crazy," said Morton. "The  recruitment and retention issues are absolutely the most horrendous I've ever seen."

The union representing social workers says staff burnout is high in New Brunswick. (Shutterstock)

Counselling is available to child protection workers through their employee assistance program, but Morton said staff may not have the time or energy to seek help — if they can even recognize they need it. 

"People become so shell-shocked, they don't even realize what's happening to them," she said. 

McKnight said the confidentiality of child protection files and the silence of child protection workers have made it easier for society to pretend that severe child abuse and neglect are not as prevalent as they are. 

By letting the system be so ignored and under-resourced, she said, society is complicit in what is happening to children. 

McKnight is making some progress in her recovery, she said, but doesn't know if she'll ever be well enough to do the job again.


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.


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