Social Work Supervision: Trauma Within Agencies
I was a program coordinator of a multiservice agency providing mental health services to children, adolescents, teens, and older adults. I supervised five programs as well as a staff of 45.
I had been home sick for 2 days when I received a phone call reporting that one of my therapists, Carla, had not shown up for work the previous day and had not yet arrived that morning. There was a client in the waiting room who had an appointment with her. The receptionist said she had not called in sick, which was unusual because Carla was a hard working and reliable staff member. I asked the receptionist to look at Carla’s master schedule, which she reported was full that day. I told the receptionist that I would call Carla at home to see if maybe she was ill or had requested time off, and I apologized for a possible oversight on my part. There was no answer at Carla’s home, however, so I left a message. I then called the agency back and told the receptionist to wait another 15 minutes, after which she should apologize to the client, see if they would like to see someone else (if in crisis), and tell them that Carla would call to reschedule the appointment.
After an hour passed, I called the agency again and was told that Carla had not come in, and another client had shown up to see her. I again told the receptionist to see if the client needed to see someone that day, apologize for the inconvenience, and tell them that Carla would call to reschedule an appointment. Because this was unusual behavior for Carla, I contacted the local police to do a welfare check to ensure that she was okay. Carla was found dead in her home. The sheriff stated that her death was being investigated as a homicide, and he would contact me soon to gather information.
I immediately contacted my supervisor, the mental health director, to notify him of Carla’s tragedy and to plan how to address this issue with both the staff and, more important, her clients. I contacted a local organization that dealt with crisis situations, Centre for Living With Dying, and asked if its staff would come to the agency the next day to help notify our staff of Carla’s death. I contacted my receptionist to send out both a voice mail and an e-mail to all staff requesting that they come to the agency the next day at lunchtime for a mandatory meeting.
The next day, the majority of staff gathered at the agency, and I notified them of Carla’s death. Carla was well liked and each staff member was overwhelmed with this tragic news. The director and staff from the Centre for Living With Dying provided crisis and grief counseling. Staff were also given information related to the organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services in case they desired continued support to address their emotions and feelings of grief.
I then needed to decide how to notify each of Carla’s clients and how much to share about her death. The local newspaper had covered this tragedy, but I did not know if her clients had seen the article. Her clients were divided up among the staff, and a team of two (a social worker and psychiatrist) set up appointments to share the news with each client. We decided to tell the clients only that Carla had died suddenly and that in order to maintain confidentiality, we could not share details. Fortunately, each of the clients handled the news as well as possible, and no one decompensated as a result.
The local police reported that Carla was shot multiple times. They suspected her neighbor with whom it was reported she had an ongoing argument related to land rights. The police had to check out other possible leads and asked for the names of her clients to rule them out as possible suspects. I mentioned confidentiality and explained that Carla saw primarily women and children who, following ethical standards, did not know where she lived. The police, however, insisted on Carla’s clients’ information, so I told them I would consult with the agency’s lawyer. That consultation resulted in the decision not to give the information to the police, and I requested a subpoena for any information related to Carla and her clinical work. Fortunately, this was not needed; evidence was found in the neighbor’s home, including a gun and bullets matching Carla’s injuries, paperwork related to a lawsuit Carla planned to file against this neighbor, and a computer stolen from Carla’s home. Carla’s neighbor was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of her murder.
Three months after Carla’s death, the staff, her family, and her clients gathered for a memorial at the agency. A tree was placed at the center of the room, and each person made an ornament that represented what Carla meant to them and how she had helped them. The tree was eventually planted in the agency parking lot in memory of Carla.
Plummer, Sara-Beth, Sara Makris, Sally Brocksen. Social Work Case Studies: Concentration Year. Laureate Publishing, 10/21/13. VitalBook file.