Social workers both create new concepts in social research and within their own internal culture are tied to outside conditions in the larger society. From the world of childrens services to that of individual cases that require extensive backgrounds in fields outside of social work exclusively, safety is always a concern.
Most office workers start their day with a cup of coffee and a dose of office gossip. Social workers start their day concerned about their safety. Due to the rise of job related violence in this field, social workers must keep personal safety at the forefront of concerns. A Survey by National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Committee for the Study and Prevention of Violence Against Social Workers, with the support of the Massachusetts Chapter, revealed that 51.3% of the sample reported feel unsafe in their jobs. Nearly one third have experienced some form of violence, including verbal abuse, at least once in the office.
Although rules, laws and procedures have been in place, Legislation along with federal and state funding needs to be addressed to help decrease this escalating problem. Social workers and home health care workers choose their profession because they want to help people and make a difference. They often have high hopes and expectations for their mentally ill patients and the children they protect. It is difficult for social workers to consider that their clients might harm them.
It is crucial to have home visits as they need to observe patients in their own environment. As a result, an issue of major concern is the violence against the social worker, which is increasing at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, in the last five years there have been numerous deaths and injuries on the job. Two surveys conducted by the National Association of Social Workers in the last few years have found that job related violence and the threat of violence are common. In practice areas such as child welfare, the violence has increased. In a 2002 survey, 800 social workers, 19% had been victims of violence and 63% had been threatened. In addition to this, there are a large number of unreported cases. There are several reasons why workers fail to report violence incidents. Unfortunately, there is a widespread perception that violent incidents are an unavoidable part of this field and that social workers should be responsible for their own safety. Another reason is the time and effort required to file reports, leading to workers being discouraged to take the necessary steps to properly document incidents. Paperwork can be time consuming and many agencies are understaffed contributing to the lack of response. A final reason for underreporting may be that workers do not feel supported by upper management. There is fear of being judged or criticized and workers are often concerned that their reports will be inadequately responded to. Lack of confidence in management response leads to workers who are less likely to report future violent incidents. This supports research indicating that in addition to the low priority management gives to the subject of violence against social workers, management partially neglects social worker’ who are victims of assault (Norris, 1990).
Social workers’ fear for their own personal safety continues to grow as cases of violence rise. This has raised questions as to whether social workers and their agencies are doing enough to protect those who deal with clients that are sometimes violent and unstable. Furthermore, some violent incidents occur even when there are no signs of potential threats.
On August 17, 2004, a Johnson County, Kansas social worker, Teri Zenner, was killed making a home visit to a client. She was stabbed by a 17 year old client who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Prior to her death her husband had been very concerned about her safety and he now battles his grief by fighting for more protection for social workers. He wants them equipped with pagers that can call 911 and have global-positioning satellite capabilities. He also wants to ensure case workers have clients’ criminal records so they may take needed precaution if red flags are raised.
Brenda Lee Yeager, a child welfare worker in Huntington, WV, was conducting a routine visit concerning an infant on July 30th, 2008. Following a dispute over the child, she was killed by the parents, who thought she was going to take the child away. After her murder, the killers attempted to burn her body and vehicle to cover their crime. (Stanley & Goddard, 2002)
Greg Gaul from Johnson, Iowa was killed in January 2007 by a 16 year old client. Gaul had no inkling that the teenager, who was to end his life, was a threat. If he had, he would have asked the child’s juvenile court officer or the police to accompany him to the home. The teenager’s history of petty theft of beer, using a car without the owner’s permission, and underage drinking was typical of many teens in the juvenile justice system. When the teenager missed a class, Gaul was called to check on the situation. He was unaware that the teen had killed his 21-year old caretaker two days prior. After shooting Gaul, the teenager fled in the social workers car and the next day committed suicide with a shotgun while being pursued by police in Colorado. (Stanley & Goddard, 2002)
Thirty one year old Edith Anderson came into the St Francis Medical Center ‘s emergency psychiatric office for help. Linda Rosen was the social worker on duty who was assessing Ms. Anderson’ needs when the client pulled out a gun and began firing. She killed Ms. Rosen and took three hostages. After police officers managed a skillful intervention the hostages were released and Ms. Anderson was taken into custody. No reason was given for the attack and the two women had never met before. (Newhill, 1995)
Another growing area of concern in the United States involves school social workers. School social workers act as the link between students’ families and the school while working with students, their parents, legal guardians, as well as, teachers and other school officials. Their main focus is the students and helping them to achieve their potential, both in their school and home lives. As part of their jobs, they are required to address issues with behavior, teen pregnancy, truancy and school violence. They are also trained to advise and coach teachers to cope with difficult students.
School social worker’s personal safety has them concerned. One third of school social workers reported that they feared for their personal safety about once a month or more. However, there were significant differences in the proportion of social workers in each community setting who reported fear compared with social workers in urban (36 percent), suburban (37 percent), and rural (31 percent) schools, significantly more social workers in inner-city schools (71 percent) reported that they feared for their personal safety. (National Goals Panel, 1994)