July/August 2023Vol. 24, No. 6Addressing Moral Injury in Child Welfare
In the AdoptUSKids’ article “Addressing Moral Injury in Our Profession,” senior child protection program manager Michelle Seymore explains the ethical dilemma she felt threatened her career and how her work with the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program at AdoptUSKids helped her address the challenge head on to her benefit—and that of the child welfare system, child welfare professionals, and the children and families they serve.
Moral injury is defined as "the psychological damage that is caused when an individual is put in a position of representing policies and taking actions that conflict with their moral code." This is the feeling Seymore came to realize she was experiencing as a child welfare professional working and living in Hennepin County, MN, when unrest exploded following the death of George Floyd.
She noted, “I was struggling for a way to stay in child welfare and feel good about it. I felt committed to the work. But I also felt conflicted between being a member of a marginalized community that has historically experienced poor outcomes from government service and being a professional implementing the rules and protocols of that system.”
Seymore believed that others shared this feeling and that it could be negatively contributing to workforce turnover and retention, so she joined the MPLD fellowship with the hope that she could gain insight and empower herself and others to confidently recommit to working in child welfare.
In her work with MPLD, Seymore conducted a research project to explore how policies that perpetuate disparities impact how long people stay in child welfare. She posited that “agencies look at data about turnover and attribute it to high caseloads and low pay, but the reality is that workers don’t feel empowered to make ethical decisions.” A survey of current staff at Hennepin County revealed that, like Seymore, moral conflict caused much of the anxiety they were also experiencing and that they were relieved to learn that moral injury was a real thing, experienced by many workers in helping professions.
Following the project and her time with MPLD, Seymore developed a three-step framework and training to help organizations address and mitigate moral injury, increase staff retention, and improve outcomes for youth and families. The framework is based on the following guidance:
- Be aware of moral injury—what it is and why it happens. Acknowledge that the system is putting workers in a situation that violates their moral code and that, as a result, they are leaving child welfare.
- Remove the blame from the workforce by creating a framework for decision-making that allows ethical decisions to be made and a system that views children and families through a safety lens, not a dominant-culture lens.
- Bring attention to the policies, practices, statutes, and laws that contribute to moral injury. Be open about how culture, religion, and environmental norms play into how we judge other people’s actions.