Verbal Judo teaches DFCS staff to diffuse difficult situations

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Local representatives of the Department of Family and Children Services are participating in a unique training program to help them deal with daily situations that range from stressful to potentially dangerous.

Henry Department of Family and Children Services have received training in Verbal Judo which teaches them to redirect others’ energy when emotions run high. Photo by Seth Jackson

A day in the life of a DFCS employee is similar to law enforcement and emergency services personnel in that one never knows what the day will bring. Whether at the county office or out in the field, these workers encounter people with great needs and no small amount of emotional distress.

One tool being utilized to bring about positive outcomes is “Verbal Judo,” a nationally recognized training system whose clients have included hundreds of organizations from all walks of life. It is billed at the “top-rated communication course in the country” with more than one million graduates worldwide.

“Verbal Judo Training is an opportunity for organizations, departments, schools and families to learn life changing skills to prevent potential conflicts from escalating out of control,” according to the Verbal Judo website.

Here in Georgia, DFCS workers are using this training in an effort to “provide a safe environment and give more tools to help de-escalate situations where emotions run high,” as one spokesperson put it.

The name is appropriate, according to one state DFCS representative, because while karate is recognized as an offensive strategy, judo is about “redirecting others’ energy. Instead of attacking, you are redirecting.”

In Henry County alone, officials received 3,145 child protective services referrals over the past 12 months through Dec. 3. There are 163 Henry County children in foster care right now and about 32 foster homes, which means children are going into homes in other counties as well as into placement agencies.

On the state level, the Child Welfare Reform Council put together by Gov. Nathan Deal is working to improve the overall foster situation. Senate Bill 138, passed this year, offers more support to current foster parents and there has been $8 million added to the budget to hire more staff and manage foster recruitment, recovering from the loss of 35-40 percent of staff in recent years and a dwindling number of foster homes.

Every one of those foster children must be checked on in person every month. Because the focus in on the welfare of children, it is not surprising that some emotionally charged situations can develop. Case workers often have no idea what they will face when out in the field. A state spokesperson said a large number of former employees stated in exit interviews that they did not feel safe on the job.

The potential stress is no less real inside the DFCS office, where employees face visits each day from people with issues regarding Medicaid and food stamps among other things.

“That can be very stressful for a family,” said a DFCS representative. “You have to understand where they are coming from.”

One Verbal Judo participant summed it up this way: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

DFCS representatives come into situations with the full power and authority of state government behind them, but they have to leave that “at the door” and meet clients on their level, which results in a much more positive response.

Technology is also being utilized to improve working conditions. Georgia Tech researchers are working on a project that would produce a type of “panic button” that DFCS workers could use to notify law enforcement immediately of their location should a situation become dangerous.

“Safety is becoming a bigger part of the conversation with the work we do,” said a spokesperson. “The safety of the kids has always been paramount, but the safety of our own case managers has become a bigger part.”

With the new training and other advancements, state officials hope to see continued improvement and better overall results for children and families.

“We can’t really do our best work in an emotionally charged situation,” said one DFCS worker. “Even if it’s just a little bit, we want to bring it down to a level where the child is safe and we can start working with families.”