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

As The Chronicle of Social Change 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 Chronicle are interested, and we’re looking for input. E-mail with any thoughts.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1204 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at

1 Comment

  1. In 25 years in child welfare leadership positions, I never once dealt with drug or alcohol abuse issues impacting a social worker’s performance. I’m not as sure I didn’t miss something, though I knew quite a few of us were prescribed anti-depressants at times.

    “It’s hard to work that hard and see families not change,” is a hard quote for me to read, largely because I think we’re the ones who have made the work as hard as it is by trying to get what works for us to work for others. If I decide I need to change and go to a therapist for help, I should know when I’ve been helped. But if you decide I need to change, even if you convince me to see a therapist, what will tell you I’ve been helped? Congratulations if you can describe visible behavioral changes. It’s easy for you to believe me if I tell you I’m better and even easier for you to believe it if my therapist says it. It can be hard to work in a system where we’ve trained the judge to prefer the therapist’s opinion over the social workers behavioral observations.

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