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Exploring child welfare social workers’ experiences and perception of working in rural under-resourced agencies in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

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Background: The Social Work child welfare system is a rewarding field which is also complex and challenging. Agencies in rural based settings are tormented by increased levels of occupational stress, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Social workers in these agencies experience continuous transformation in service delivery and resources, as well as working conditions. Aim: This study sought to explore the experiences and perception of social workers in rural based child welfare agencies. The intended motive was to establish an understanding of the experiences of child welfare social workers in rural under-resourced agencies. Methods: The study utilised a qualitative approach, which enables a comprehensive description of the participants‟ feelings, experiences, and perceptions of working in under-resourced agencies. The sample was drawn from the population of three agencies in Mnquma Local Municipality in the Eastern Cape. The municipality falls in the B category and consolidates the towns and rural areas of Butterworth, Centane and Ngqamakhwe. The Municipality is generally rural in nature and relies on social grants. A total of eight child welfare social workers were recruited for this study. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews that were audio-recorded. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data from the transcribed interviews. Results: The results were examined in light of empirical evidence from related literature and the Maslach‟s Multidimensional Theory of Burnout. Seven themes were obtained from the data: (1) Childhood Related Personal Experience, (2) Agency-Based Perception of Burnout, (3) Occupational Stress, (4) Nature of the Working Conditions in Rural-Based Agencies, (5) Inadequate Support for Agency Child Welfare Social Workers, (6) Staff Turnover Rates in Rural Under-Resourced Agencies and (7) Varied Ways of Coping with Stress on the Job. The study has revealed that child welfare agencies face various challenges due to conditions of chronic poverty, unemployment, inadequate transportation, geography, and special health care access. The families with children are vulnerable, since they are most negatively affected. Findings: The research findings have revealed that social workers of the child welfare agencies experience burnout and occupational stress due to rural poverty, leading to staff turnover. The study recommended that agencies should give emotional and clinical support to social workers on a regular basis. Also, the importance of wellness and self-care for social workers should be emphasised. Moreover, there is need to prioritise brief crisis interventions for rural social workers, which include critical incident stress debriefings and psychosocial debriefings, as well as trauma risk management strategies built upon to trauma-focused debriefing principles. Recommendations: The study also recommended that the agencies focus on an organisational culture that reflects a bottom-up management approach. Lastly, there should be additional professional oversight in a form of adequate supervision, as well as a shift in terms of managerial style to an approach that is more strengths-based. These possible recommendations address challenges or barriers faced by social workers, in order to improve the quality of their working experience.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal,, Durban.