The Risk of Violence

Posted by GVT Admin on Mar 13, 2024 1:24:58 PM

Social Workers are at risk of violence

In the article “The Urgency of Social Worker Safety,” National Association of Social Workers (NASW) President James J. Kelly, PhD, ACSW, LCSW, noted, “In the past few years alone, we have witnessed the fatal stabbing of a clinical social worker in Boston, the deadly beating of a social service aide in Kentucky, the sexual assault and murder of a social worker in West Virginia, the shooting of a clinical social worker and Navy Commander at a mental health clinic in Baghdad, and the brutal slaying of social worker Teri Zenner in Kansas. These are only a few of the murders of our colleagues, which, along with numerous assaults and threats of violence, paint a troubling picture for the profession.”

  • Far too many social workers and health professionals have lost their lives to workplace violence. The alarming statistics do not capture the substantial number of unreported assaults, which, according to one survey, are as high as 85% of all assaults.
  • A 2004 national study by the National Association of Social Workers of 10,000 licensed social workers found that 44% of the respondents reported facing personal safety issues in their primary employment setting and 30% felt that their employers did not adequately address safety issues.
  • Christina Newhill, PhD, ACSW, discussed a client violence study survey in which Newhill had obtained 1,129 social worker respondents. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents had directly experienced an incident of client violence.
  • Social workers experience safety threats from clients and their family members, including attempted assaults, actual assaults, threats of harm, verbal abuse, property damage, stalking, and cyberbullying,” Newhill says.
  • Becky Fast, MPA, MSW, executive director of the Kansas Chapter of NASW notes that many social workers leave positions because they don’t feel like they have backup. They don’t have the support they need, and their personal safety feels unattended.

What Social Workers Say

  • "I think for a long time, the issue of client violence and social worker safety was the ‘elephant in the room,” says Christina E. Newhill, PhD, LCSW, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. “Everyone knew it was a problem, but we were hesitant to discuss it, fearing that acknowledging safety as an issue for social work would discourage people from entering the field.”
  • “I think the biggest issue is money,” Wanda Anderson, MSW, LCSW, assistant director of the MSWO program and a clinical professor at the University of New England’s College of Professional Studies says. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if money wasn’t an issue.” Social workers complete home visits alone at off hours in remote locations where policemen don't even venture without a partner and a weapon. Organizations need to assess protocols and policies, adjusting them to prioritize safety with service. This could mean sending out teams as opposed to individuals, for example. But safety costs money and agencies must face this fact.
  • When you have increased caseloads, you have less supervisory support and less supervisor direction to assist you with families that have high needs. Many caseworkers are new professionals who may not have noticed a red flag in terms of safety that a supervisor might have. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Becky Fast, MPA, MSW, executive director of the Kansas Chapter of NASW.
  • Finally, inexperienced social workers are often in denial themselves preferring to see their clients as needy and marginalized, not dangerous or a threat to the social worker's safety.

Acting on Behalf of Social Worker Safety

  • In Kansas, after the murder of social worker Teri Zenner in 2004, social workers are now required to complete six hours of safety training as a part of the continuing education credits needed for licensure.
  • Eric Neblung, PhD, president of the New York State Psychological Association forensic division, now teaches social workers these primary safety steps:
  1. Watch for antecedent behaviors such as verbal threats.
  2. Maintain clear boundaries and address boundary violations as they arise.
  3. If you can avoid it, do not work alone.
  4. If you have concerns about a client, seek peer consultation or supervision.
  5. Maintain an unlisted telephone number and home address.
  6. Seek assistance from the legal system if warranted, e.g., order of protection, etc.”
  7. Conduct a thorough clinical risk assessment of every client to determine a prior history of violence, drug/alcohol use, or weapon use. In terms of preventing violence, knowledge is power.

More Must Be Done to Protect Social Workers

  • Proactive steps such as detailed safety trainings for social workers who make home visits.
  • Instilling a culture of safety and risk reduction within agencies.
  • Utilizing technology such as GPS tracking and cell phones for social workers in the community.
  • Crisis management and self-defense instruction to promote safety.

Let's open our minds and hearts and make the safety of our social workers priority number one.


Additional Articles on this topic:

Violent Crime and Social Worker Safety 

Social Worker Safety 

Safety, Ethics, and The Elephant in the Room 

Topics: social workers, social issues

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