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Addressing moral injury in our profession

MPLD fellow Michelle Seymore
MPLD fellow Michelle Seymore

Michelle Seymore was living in Minneapolis and working as a child protection program manager for Hennepin County when George Floyd was killed and unrest broke out in the city. Those events, on top of her always present concerns about the effects of systemic racism in the child welfare system, made Michelle question whether she could remain in the profession.

“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.” Michelle said.

When Michelle heard that the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program at AdoptUSKids was accepting applicants, she applied, thinking that participating in the fellowship might help guide her future direction and make her feel empowered to do the work again.

As it turns out, she was right.

Giving a feeling a name: moral injury

During the yearlong MPLD program, each fellow completes an action research project that addresses a challenge faced by their organization. When she was accepted into the fellowship, Michelle knew that her topic would be related to moral injury.

Moral injury: 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.

“People ask me if I coined the phrase, and the answer is no! Moral injury is a term that I came across in my initial literature review. It was commonly used to describe the PTSD experienced by soldiers, especially following the Vietnam War,” Michelle said.

Michelle knew that she was not alone in experiencing moral injury, and she suspected that it was having negative effects on child welfare retention and, ultimately, on children in care. Michelle worked with MPLD program leaders to design an action research project she hoped would demonstrate how policies that perpetuate disparities impact how long people stay in the child welfare field.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere if this problem didn’t become tangible for our agency leadership. It had to be about more than personal struggles. My goal was to associate hard costs—especially that of low workforce retention—to the problem of putting staff in circumstances that conflict with their moral code,” Michelle said.

Bringing data to bear

To test her theory, Michelle started by developing a survey for workers who had left child welfare jobs, asking their reasons for leaving. Was it the causes frequently cited by administrators—high caseloads and low wages? Or was there more to it?

Not one person responded to the survey.

Michelle regrouped with her MPLD mentor, and they realized that Michelle was asking the wrong questions of the wrong audience and at the wrong time. She redesigned her survey and started polling staff who were still working at Hennepin County during training sessions.

“I learned that a cause of workers’ unease with their jobs was that they were experiencing the same moral conflicts as I was, but they didn’t know it. They felt validated by having a name for it and knowing that they were not alone in feeling this way,” Michelle said.

Hearing the stories of workers in more established units taught Michelle something new: that race was not the only cause of workers’ moral transgressions. Workers who grew up in poverty talked with her about their inability to share their feeling that the system vilifies poor people. One woman who’d been a victim of domestic violence said she was afraid to disclose that fact with colleagues and question when children were removed from homes where a mother was being battered.

“What I heard from workers in polls and conversations validated my assumption: 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. They didn’t enter the field wanting to get rich. They came in because they wanted to make changes in their community. The system prevents them from doing that. And then they start to feel like they are part of the problem,” Michelle said.

Staying focused on a solution

Michelle’s conversations and the results of her research inspired her to broaden her project. But her MPLD mentors encouraged her to keep her focus on one tangible goal: to identify a challenge facing your organization and propose a solution.

“The more I learned, the bigger I wanted to go! But I also wanted to offer a solution that people could relate to and that could be implemented. So I kept my action research project focused on moral injury in the field and how we can decrease it: by removing dominant culture bias from practices, policies, and procedures,” Michelle said.

Ultimately, Michelle proposed a three-step framework to help child welfare organizations combat moral injury and a training based on this framework:

  1. Name it. Be aware of moral injury and moral transgression—what it is and why it happens. Acknowledge that the system is putting workers in a situation that violates their moral code and, as a result, they are leaving the field.
  2. Remove the blame from the workforce. How? By creating a framework for decision-making that allows ethical decisions to be made—a system that views children and families through a safety lens, not a dominant-culture lens.
  3. 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.

Working the plan and looking ahead

Since completing the 12-month MPLD fellowship, Michelle has delivered her training in Hennepin County and other jurisdictions. She’s also working with the state to write a curriculum for a training that could potentially be delivered to all incoming workers.

She’s also been researching how staff in other helping professions—health care, education, and other areas of social services—are affected by moral injury and looking for frameworks that could be applied to those institutions. Michelle says, participating in MPLD accomplished just what she’d hoped it would: the fellowship gave her new direction and renewed her commitment to working in child welfare.

“I don’t think I’d still be in my job if I hadn’t participated in the MPLD program. It helped me articulate myself in a way that I could be heard as an individual within the system wanting to improve it, not an enemy of the system. Through MPLD, I realized that I can feel the way I feel, as long as I can make changes and be effective. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.”