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The Cave - supporting child-protection social workers in SA

Dr Elmien Truter and Prof Ansie Fouch'e are two registered social workers and researchers at the North-West University (NWU) who, through their own experience in practice and their research, identified the grim reality in which designated child-protection social workers are expected to do their work.

They have now launched a unique Web site (www.thecave.africa) in the hope of providing a support system for all child-protection social workers in South Africa.

Dr Truter has several years of experience as a social worker specialising in child-protection, and is still in a part-time practice handling cases of child abuse and neglect for an NGO. Her research interest relates to child abuse, improving child protection systems, exploring and addressing the adverse circumstances in which child-protection social workers must work, and understanding and promoting their resilience.

Prof Fouch'e is an NRF-rated researcher and a programme leader in the NWU's Optentia research focus area. Her research interests include child sexual abuse; forensic social work; pre-trial therapy; resilience; post-traumatic growth and strengths-based interventions. Prior to joining the academic world in 2009, she worked as a social worker for 15 years, specialising in the forensic assessment of allegations of child sexual abuse.

Dr Truter and Prof Fouch'e's shocking research findings revealed that child-protection social workers may need more help, support and assistance to stay resilient and keep doing the good work to help children.

"Our research and experience revealed several risk factors, which may place these specific social workers at risk for burnout, compassion fatigue, poor service delivery and high attrition rates," says Dr Truter.

"We consider it a privilege to make a small contribution towards addressing this problem by creating a Web site (with free access) that will hopefully offer them a safe space - a 'cave' where they can learn and reflect before they return to the 'wild', which is the world in which they practise," explains Prof Fouch'e.

The clever metaphor of the Web site as cave creates the idea that you are on a journey of exploration to find knowledge, motivation and reassurance in the challenging field of social work. The main purpose of the Web site is to provide support to these social workers, to create a community and a fount of wisdom. When the social worker then returns to work in the "wild" again, they will be a bit stronger and wiser and able to carry on.

The Web site presents information from different angles that child-protection social workers can use. The site contains different themes that will be renewed every eight to 10 months. The current themes on the Web site are "Signs of abuse in children" and "Impact of abuse on children". The content of each theme will be available in three different sections: Precious Stones, Bonfire and Moonlight.

Precious Stones are simplified summaries of the most recent and relevant research articles that child-protection social workers may want to use in their work or as a reference in a court report.

"We know that most child-protection social workers do not have the time to read research articles or to stay up to date with recent research publications, so we stay up to date with these articles and read them on their behalf," explains Prof Fouch'e.

The purpose of Precious Stones, she says, is to move science and practice closer together by empowering child-protection social workers in the field with the most recent research, which may be useful in making evidence-informed decisions.

The second section of the Web site is the Bonfire. "Bonfire is something that Ansie and I have created, as we are very much aware of the fact that child-protection social workers in South Africa deal with a variety of social problems in different contexts," explains Dr Truter.

"More often than not, child-protection social workers do not have the luxury of multi-professional input, which is often necessary to solve certain problems. At Bonfire, we invite them to come and 'sit around the fire' and listen to the conversations we have with multiple experts from different disciplines about topics that are important to the work that they do on ground level. The ideas, experience and tips that these experts share, may help the social workers in areas in which they are not necessarily experts."

The Children's Act, Act 38 of 2005, is one of the primary pieces of legislation that guide the work of child-protection social workers in South Africa. Social workers may not always have time to study this bulky piece of legislation, or stay up to date with amendments and regulations. The third part of the Web site illuminates the Children's Act (38/2005). Moonlight will clarify some parts of the Children's Act (38/2005) and help the social workers to better understand and apply what is legally expected of them.

"We do not claim to know everything, but we want to try and help child-protection social workers to do their best in protecting the children of our communities. With the launch of The Cave, we acknowledge the value of their work and salute them for fighting the good fight in very harsh working conditions," says Dr Truter and Prof Fouch'e.

Find them on Facebook and Twitter: @thecave_africa