After the death of Boni Frederick, a Kentucky social worker, during a home visit in 2006, the Kentucky Legislature passed the Boni Fredrick Bill. Fredrick was killed on a routine home visit, bringing a child for a supervised visit with his mother. This resulted in the Kentucky Law, aimed to increase security at social workers offices, provide technology to increase safety and give employees 24 hour access to criminal records.
The West Virginia Chapter of The National Association of Social Workers has called for legislative action since Brenda Yeager’s 2008 death. The group lobbies to set policies and staff levels that ensure social workers never go alone into potentially violent situations. It also aims to see that social workers have self defense training and technology to improve their personal safety.
After Teri Zenner’s 2004 death, the Johnson County, Kansas Mental Health office implemented a new “Work Place Safety and Agency response to Violence” program. Case workers now have an electronic calendar and tracking system so supervisors have immediate GPS notification of where the workers are during home visits and can check in to make sure they are safe. Workers also have the option of declining to visit a home in which they feel threatened and have greater access to clients’ medical histories and backgrounds. Employees receive self defense training and are required to attend seminars on how to deal with potentially violent clients. The agency is also exploring the possibility of using cellular phones with GPS tracking capabilities.
David Wiebe, Johnson County Mental Health’s executive director, says “We are focusing on keeping schedules up to date, so we know where everyone is and give staff as much knowledge as possible to stay safe.” He goes on to say “The problem will always be there, because that’s where the profession is at.” (Trainin-Blank, 2005)
Many actions can be taken to minimize risk of personal harm to Social Workers. A group of social workers were recently polled and responded with the following suggestions:
The first day on the job-enquire about a “violence plan,” like a fire drill.
If a client becomes threatening, leave the room and seek assistance.
Ask a co-worker or other staff personnel to go along if you are meeting a client with unpredictable behavior.
Plan visits early in the morning.
Lock all car doors. Ask yourself, is parking lot will lit?
How well do you know the neighborhood?
Do you have a panic button connected to the police?
How well do you know yourself? Are you prepared for this task or client?
The NASW committee recommends several strategies for social workers, including; knowing the risk of violence, learning the individual, never put yourself in a knowingly uncertain situation, understanding addictions, mental illness and other questionable behaviors, but most importantly go with your instincts. (Trainin-Blank, 2005)
The United States has addressed the overall problem of worker safety, largely prompted by these individual state laws and committee recommendations. The primary piece of national legislation currently proposed to address this problem is “The Teri Zenner Social Worker Safety Act, H. R. 2165”. This act authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to award grants to states to provide safety measures to social workers and other professionals working with violent, drug-using, or other at-risk populations. The objective is to establish a grant program to provide state agencies with additional safety measures to protect their social workers and other professionals who work with at risk population. Ideally, this grant program would provide for safety measures such as GPS equipment, self defense training, conflict prevention, facility safety and more. It would also help with education resources and materials to train staff on safety and awareness measures. The bill calls for Congress to authorize 5 million per year for the next 5 years and require states to provide matching funds (Ofosu, 2007).
In the proposed bill, the program would be administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Secretary would be authorized to award the grants to individual state agencies. The Secretary would base eligibility and give priority to agencies that demonstrated the greatest need based on documented incidents and are seeking to assist multiple agencies.
States receiving grants through this bill are required to report how the money was used. The information required will include an assessment of the activities funded in whole or in part with the grants. The state will be required to describe the range and scope of training opportunities provided, including numbers and percentages of attendees. For tracking purposes, agencies will also be required to report any incidences of threats to social workers along with the strategies used to address their safety.
Based on the extensive research done, the Teri Zenner Safety Act is believed to have a solid foundation. The heart of the policy focuses on setting procedures and policies in place to safeguard our social workers and the important selfless job that they do on a daily basis. This Act would be the first of its kind nationally, and would bring about much needed changes in the social work field.
The Teri Zenner Safety Act will bring about much needed changes and funding to protect our Social Workers. This bill should be signed into law and funded through national block funding. This bill both addresses the needs of state agencies to reinforce precautionary programs, and the necessity for a reporting and tracking process for violent and threatening incidents.
In addition to the eligibility of funds for state agencies, suggested programs should be readily available for mandatory therapy programs for social workers following any violent incidents. The amount of stress due to fear of personal safety has risen so greatly that workers are in need of coping mechanisms to help them continue in their jobs. Stronger pay and benefit packages would also help to retain workers in these areas.
The Teri Zenner Safety Act has strong requirements for reporting, but could also benefit from a national tracking program, with staff dedicated to evaluating the success of the act. This team could implement programs as needed in areas with high violent incident statistics along with high job turnover rate. They could also evaluate areas with successful programs and help to implement these among other agencies and states.
Social work is a rewarding profession as there are so many children that are in need of assistance, the work is steadily increasing. However, today’s social workers are forced to live in constant fear of personal threat or harm. Unless measures are taken now to protect their safety, this could have a significant impact on the field, resulting in a less safe environment for our citizens. The passing of the Teri Zenner Act would give state agencies the funding necessary to implement programs to protect their workers.