Tragedies Spark Worker-Safety Awareness
Many Think Client Violence 'Won't Happen Here'
Violence or threats of violence are reasonably common for social
workers during their careers.
By John V. O'Neill, MSW, News Staff
|Illustration: John Michael
The deaths of a young woman, a troubled teenager and the murder
of social worker Greg Gaul on an icy day late in January brought
almost unbearable shock and grief to the Des Moines social work
community and the entire city.
It also renewed the questions of whether social workers and their
agencies are doing enough to protect those who deal with clients
who are sometimes unstable and occasionally violent or intent
on homicide and whether emphasis on safety could limit social
workers' ability to be effective with clients.
* * *
Gaul was "beloved," the kind of social worker others
aspire to be, said his business partner John Stanley. "Most
don't have the same amount of qualities Greg had in abundance
— the patience and kindness."
The former seminarian had an uncommon amount of success for his
41 years. An MSW graduate of the University of Minnesota, four
years ago he helped start Lifeworks, a successful agency that
contracts with the State of Iowa to provide in-home child welfare
and juvenile justice services.
He was a well-known and well-respected figure among the law enforcement
officials, attorneys, judges, social workers, educators and juvenile
offenders in the Des Moines area.
"Greg and I started a business together with the philosophy
that many people didn't have opportunities and need to have doors
opened for them and that the basis of therapy is to be kind and
gentle to people," said Stanley.
Gaul had a wife and six children age 10 and under, with another
child expected in the spring. Yet he found time to be active in
his church and to be a baseball coach, Cub Scout leader and black
belt in tae kwon do, involving his children in his pastimes, and
he volunteered at a prison for women.
He bought his shoes and shirts at a Salvation Army thrift store.
"He was a casual guy. That's what helped people relate to
him," said Stanley.
"But he took very seriously what he did. Everyone who came
in contact with Greg felt he gave something of himself to them."
Friends don't remember what he was wearing his last day alive.
* * *
"Violence has a low base rate and doesn't happen frequently
enough to make it easy to predict," said Christina Newhill,
associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh.
Yet violence or threats of violence are reasonably common for
social workers during their careers, especially in certain areas
of practice, according to data from a 1993 study Newhill conducted
of 800 NASW members from Pennsylvania and 800 from California.
Of the 1,129 social workers who responded, 42 percent had experienced
no incidents of violence, 25 percent reported property damage,
50 percent were threatened and 24 percent reported attempted or
actual physical attacks. The incidence rate of violence or threats
of violence was highest in the criminal justice field (79 percent),
followed by drug and alcohol services (76 percent) and children
and youth services (75 percent). Others were mental health services,
64 percent; developmental disability, 56 percent; school social
work, 54 percent; health care, 49 percent; and aging, 44 percent.
Males were almost twice as likely to report physical attacks
as females, 39 percent to 21 percent, perhaps because it is perceived
as more socially acceptable to attack a man, and sometimes men
are asked to act as a sort of security force at agencies, although
they have no training for it, Newhill said.
Newhill began to look at the issue of violence to social workers
after the 1989 death of Californian Robbyn Panitch, 26, who had
recently graduated from the University of Southern California.
Panitch was employed in a walk-in clinic when a delusional man
walked into her office, closed the door and stabbed her 30 times.
Nobody heard anything because the office was soundproof. She had
talked to her supervisor about being afraid of the client, and
things could have been done to make her safer, said Newhill.
"Agencies feel it doesn't happen very often, and when it
does, it's not going to happen here," she said. "Only
after a tragedy occurs is action taken. They are in denial."
* * *
Gaul had no inkling that the teenager who was to end his life
was a threat, said Stanley. If he had he would have asked the
child's juvenile court officer or the police to accompany him
to the home. "There was nothing in [the teenager's] past
to create a major level of concern."
The 16-year-old's parents divorced in 2002. According to news
accounts, he had problems living with his mother and moved in
with his father and a woman the father lived with in an upscale
neighborhood near Des Moines. The teenager, who reportedly had
a history of petty theft of beer, using a car without the owner's
permission and drinking, was typical of many teens in the juvenile
The situation deteriorated late in January, when a 21-year-old
recent college graduate was hired to live at the house to keep
an eye on the youth while the father and his girlfriend were on
vacation out of the country.
When the teenager didn't attend classes on Tuesday, Jan. 27,
Gaul received a call from the mother of the young house sitter
asking him to check on her daughter.
Gaul, who colleagues say used his therapeutic skill and wits
to defuse tense situations, probably had no apprehension when
he approached the house that morning. He didn't know that the
teenager had murdered the sitter two days earlier.
After shooting Gaul, the teenager fled in Gaul's car and the
next day committed suicide with a shotgun while being pursued
by police in Colorado.
* * *
Gaul's death is a "message to the rest of us to continue
to be thoughtful about what we do," said Leila Carlson, executive
director of the NASW Iowa Chapter. "It's easy to get into
routines and not treat each case individually, there is so much
to get done."
Carlson arranged for Newhill to present a three-hour chapter
workshop on workplace safety on March 31 and to meet with a small
group of Iowa agency executives so that the discussion on agency
safety will continue in Iowa
"The most important thing is for the agency to say openly,
'Let's talk about safety and make it a regular topic at staff
meetings,'" said Newhill. Violence to social workers is often
underreported, she said. Social workers sometimes think they will
be blamed and don't tell supervisors, or sometimes they report
it and supervisors don't have a good response.
Newhill's workshop in Iowa was slated to cover a number of characteristics
of clients that could alert social workers to potential violence,
as outlined in her recent book Client Violence in Social Work
Practice: Prevention, Intervention and Research. These include:
- Individual and clinical risk factors, such as certain psychiatric
symptoms like violent fantasies, personality features like impulsivity,
personality disorders and substance abuse.
- Biological risk factors, like low intelligence quotient and
- Historical risk factors, like a history of violence, early
exposure to violence, and unsteady employment.
- Environmental risk factors, like level and quality of social
support, peer pressure and access to weapons.
Newhill said the workshop would also cover guidelines for how
to make clinical assessments and environmental assessments to
determine the potential for client violence and an assessment
of social worker safety. The guidelines include inquiring about
the client's potential for violence toward others and self, getting
to know a neighborhood ahead of time by consulting with colleagues
and police and finding out who will be in the home and potential
Other workshop segments were to cover safe settings for interviews;
intervention techniques with potentially violent clients, like
speaking softly, avoiding intense direct eye contact and avoiding
early interpretations and insights; the physical environment of
an office, such as panic buttons or pre-arranged methods to summon
help; and how to dress, tucking in scarves and neckties and wearing
no necklaces or earrings.
* * *
Hundreds of people lined up outside Holy Trinity Catholic Church
for Gaul's wake, delaying the start of his memorial service. They
packed the church again the next day at his funeral, filling the
balcony, standing around the sanctuary walls and sitting on the
The Des Moines Register covered Gaul's death and that of the
21-year-old house sitter extensively. "The local press has
been very kind, writing stories about Greg and his work and the
field of social work and its difficulties," said Stanley.
Many professions — including police work, fire fighting and military
service — bring inherent danger, "but it's easy to forget
those people who help troubled kids," said the Register.
"Social work is a job where workers are generally unappreciated,
underpaid and overworked. These highly educated people could choose
to work in other professions. After a few years in the field,
many do. . . . But there are those workers who persevere. They
stick with the job because they care about kids and know what
they do matters."
* * *
Agencies need general strategies for safety, said Newhill. These
- Raising consciousness so that client violence is seen as a
legitimate practice concern.
- Administrators and supervisors taking the lead in promoting
- Offering high quality in-service safety training.
- Developing a user-friendly means of reporting and tracking
incidents of violence.
- Establishing protocols with other organizations that agencies
have interdependent relations with regarding safety.
* * *
Determining the level and intensity of a safety program is difficult,
said Stanley, Gaul's business partner and friend. "I've been
a social worker for 18 years and never had anybody even spit at
Gaul always had a positive outlook, and "I don't think he
would want people to respond in fear or hold it [his murder] against
people or for it to impact on their ability to work," said
Stanley. "Rather than worrying that something could happen
to me, I will work on being gentler and kinder to my clients.
That's the message I would have gotten from Greg."
"Some danger is part of being human. Humans are capable
of incredible good things and incredible horrific things. You
just don't know."
Still, said Stanley, Lifeworks, like many other agencies, holds
serious and ongoing discussions about how to keep its social workers
safe and alive.
Contributions to aid Gaul's family can be sent to the Greg Gaul
Memorial Fund, First American Bank, 2805 Beaver Ave., Des Moines,
From April 2004 NASW News. © 2004 National
Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. NASW News
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