Suicidality in child protection settings: Implications for social work education

Calling all child welfare folks who may be attending CSWE this October 2011 in Atlanta – please attend our panel entitled “Suicidality in child protection settings: Implications for social work education.” This panel will include the presentation on new research about the prevalence of self-reported lifetime suicidality amongst former foster youth, two assessments of the preparedness to address suicidality amongst child protection workers and a model for data-driven intervention in the enhancement of child protection-specific practice competencies in addressing suicidality amongst transitional-aged youth (e.g. ages 18-24). Join us in Atlanta and extend the conversation! See our abstract, below.

Suicidality in child protection settings: Implications for social work education

Elspeth M. Slayter, PhD1, Marcela Blue, MSW2, Lashanda Stone, MSW, LICSW3 and Cheryl Springer, PhD1, (1)School of Social Work, Salem State University, Salem, MA, (2)Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Arlington, MA, (3)Massachusetts Department of Children and Families – Western Region, Springfield, MA
Learning Objectives:

• To analyze the risk factors for suicidality among former foster youth for inclusion in a social work practice curriculum

• To develop strategies for building competence and confidence in suicide-related knowledge, skills and values in child protection work.

• To evaluate child protection worker confidence and competence in suicide-related knowledge, skills and valies

Overview: While the correlates of suicidality overlap with reasons for child protection involvement, little is known about the presentation or management of suicidality in such settings. This panel presents original research on suicidality among former foster youth, worker preparedness to address suicidality and on approaches to increase suicide-related practice competencies. Few events are as devastating to families as when a person attempts or committs suicide. While the majority of attempts are usually categorized as ‘cries for help’ that do not end in fatalities, research suggests that a previous suicide attempt is the greatest predictors of a successful attempt, which underscores the urgency of attention to suicide screening and prevention activities (Zayas, Fortuna, Lester & Cabassa). Much is known about the risk factors for suicidality, which can be grouped into three domains – demographic characteristics, characteristics emanating from the experience of childhood trauma and clinical characteristics. An examination of the existing knowledge about risk factors for suicidality suggests that people involved in child protection systems – and especially youth involved in foster care or with foster care histories – are at high risk for suicidality (Hukkanen, Sourander, & Bergroth, 2003). Risk factors can include mental health status, lower income, living arrangements, social supports and low self-esteem (Morano, 1993; Nugent & William-Hayes, 2003). Former child protection clients, for example, are four to five times more likely to have been hospitalized for suicide attempts (Feldman & Freedenthal, 2006). This panel addresses the need for preparation of child welfare social workers to address suicidality by presenting data on suicidality prevalence among former foster youth, preparedness of child welfare social workers to address suicidality and one approach to fostering suicide-related knowledge, skills and practice values among child welfare social workers.

Prevalence of suicidality among former foster youth: Transitional-aged youth who have aged out of foster care are known to experience higher rates of behavioral health challenges (Goldner 2009) although little is known about suicidality in this population. Drawing on secondary data from the nationally-representative Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys to explore suicidality among transitional-aged youth with foster care histories (N=100,125) and their counterparts without foster care histories (N=224,704). Youth with foster care histories were 1.5 times more likely to report ever having a suicidal thought (OR=1.53, p

Preparedness to address suicidality in child welfare practice: Research suggests that child protection workers receive little to no training in suicide prevention (Feldman & Freedenthal, 2006). Additionally, there is an absence of literature regarding training for child protection workers in addressing suicidality (Barrio, 2007). Given this dearth of data, findings from a statewide study of 144 public child protection workers’ preparedness to address suicidality on their caseloads will be presented. Findings suggest that 50% of all surveyed reported experiencing a client suicide. Fewer than 40% of social workers could identify suicide risk factors in child welfare clients and only 60.4 % (N=87) had attended a suicide training. When asked to rate their preparedness to assess for suicidality for children, adolescents and adults, less than half reported feeling prepared (at 36.1%, 40.3% and 42.1%, respectively). Respondents who received training reported feeling more prepared to assess for suicide amongst the three developmental stages (t=1.41, p

Development of suicide-related competencies for child welfare practice: Given the increased risk for suicidality among child welfare system clients, and the potential lack of preparation for suicide-related prevention, assessment and intervention amongst child welfare social workers, an approach to building child protection workers’ knowledge, skills and values will be presented. Drawing on an existing survey designed to evaluate social work students’ knowledge, skills and values for practice around suicidality (Ruiz & Springer, 2007), an instrument was crafted and tested on a pilot group of child welfare workers practicing with transitional-aged youth in one child welfare office. Data were collected in a pre-post research design format in order to inform the development of a targeted training and assess the impact of that training. Implications relate to the adoption of data-informed training projects that can inform child welfare practice around suicidality. Additional implications relate to the potential for social work students in research courses and with mezzo practice projects to engage in such research and evaluation work as a means of integrating research and practice knowledge and skills.

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