Abstract: The Effects of Working with Traumatized Youth: Assessment of Secondary Traumatic Stress in DJJ Teachers and Staff (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

59P The Effects of Working with Traumatized Youth: Assessment of Secondary Traumatic Stress in DJJ Teachers and Staff

Friday, January 15, 2010
* noted as presenting author
Schnavia Smith Hatcher, PhD , University of Georgia, Assistant Professor, Athens, GA
Hyejung Oh, MSW , University of Georgia, Doctoral Student, Athens, GA
Brian Bride, PhD , University of Georgia, Associate Professor, Athens, GA
Background/Purpose: Exposure to trauma is more frequent amongst juvenile detainees than youth in the community. Ninety-six percent of offenders have experienced one “potentially traumatizing” event while over eight-two percent have experienced multiple events, compared to 4.5% of the normal population (Costello et. al., 2002; Ruchkin, Schwab-Stone, Koposov, Vermeiren, & Steiner, 2002). Given the frequency and violent character of the traumas encountered by juvenile offenders, staff with whom these juveniles interact regularly while in custody is at risk of developing secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) has been documented in several professions that engage with traumatized clients, including mental health-care workers and sexual abuse and domestic violence agency staff (Baird & Jenkins, 2003; Collins & Long, 2003).

Diagnosing and treating STS is vital. Left untreated, STS is related to higher rates of substance abuse, burnout and agency turnover (VanBergeijk & Samiento, 2006). Thus, more research is needed to establish the prevalence of STS in agencies that often work with traumatized youth. The purpose of this study was to determine to what extent Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) education staff experience STS. Therefore, the research was guided by the following research questions: (1) To what extent do teachers and staff perceive that youth in detention have experienced traumatic events and traumatic stress symptoms?; and (2) To what extent to do DJJ teachers and staff experience secondary traumatic stress?

Methods: DJJ teachers and staff that were attending a statewide annual conference were administered a cross-sectional survey, including the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, that are congruent with the DSM-IV-TR PTSD symptom clusters (APA, 2000). There were 118 participants.

Results: Approximately 95% of the DJJ staff and teachers indicated that their students were traumatized. Forty-three percent of respondents felt that the students were moderately traumatized, 30% were severely traumatized, and 7.1% were very severely traumatized. Regarding STS, the most frequently reported symptom was intrusive thoughts related to work with clients, with 61% of respondents indicating that they thought about their work with traumatized clients without intending to. Endorsement of the seven avoidance symptoms ranged from 53.4% for sense of foreshortened future to 50.9% for avoidance of clients. Among the five arousal symptoms, irritability and concentration difficulties were reported by 41.5% and 47.5% of the sample, respectively. Despite working with traumatized clients, 18.6% of respondents did not meet any of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD other than exposure. However, 81.4% met at least one, 55.1% met two, and 39.8% met all three core diagnostic criteria.

Conclusion: Juvenile justice workers often characterized their clients as traumatized and indicated that their work with detainees was traumatizing. Given the frequency of STS in DJJ staff, agency mechanisms such as supervision and debriefing need to be implemented to treat or buffer the development of STS in juvenile justice workers. A focus on trauma-specific education and training that focus on psychological trauma or treatment should also be considered. Finally, more research is needed to examine the extent to which STS impacts employee health, effectiveness and burnout in these agencies.