From the President
The Urgency of Social Worker Safety
By James J. Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSW
We became social workers in an effort to help others. We chose
this helping profession because we thought serving others was a cause worthy
enough to devote our careers to it. However, unlike many other helping
professionals, social workers often must put themselves in harm’s way in order
to help their clients.
We became social workers with full understanding that we would
work with vulnerable and at-risk populations, and as such could be faced with
difficult and even dangerous challenges. Our clients may be court-ordered to
receive our services, suffering from poverty, or angry about their situation.
Social workers are employed in a variety of settings where safety is a major
concern, including child welfare agencies, correctional facilities, community
mental health centers, recovery clinics, psychiatric facilities and even
schools and hospitals.
Job-related violence affects not only the professionals who
experience it, but also their families, their clients and their communities.
However, unlike police officers — who also enter their profession with an
understanding of the danger involved — social workers are often asked to enter
these risky situations without a partner or proper safety training.
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.
According to a study from the NASW Center for Workforce
Studies, social workers with the least amount of experience (zero to five
years) are most likely to experience safety issues on the job. They are also
more likely to work in mental health or child welfare agencies. In the same
study, 44 percent of respondents said that they face personal safety issues in
their primary employment practice. The Occupational Safety and Health
Administration announced that more assaults (48 percent) occur in the health
care and social services industry than any other.
These statistics are alarming for a profession that is already
struggling to recruit and retain social workers to serve the nearly 10 million
clients we work with on a daily basis. That number continues to grow as we deal
with the repercussions of a stalled economy.
Safety is not a topic that is comprehensively covered in
social work school, and social workers are not typically prepared with adequate
self-defense training, conflict resolution techniques or resources to prevent
violence. Social workers are expected to enter people’s lives when they may be
at their worst, solve seemingly intractable problems, help clients with
life-threatening challenges and work with people in their most vulnerable
moments. However, many of the skills required to do so are often learned on the
job. This is unacceptable and not only will result in continued assaults and
tragedies, but also will pose a barrier to the recruitment of future social
workers who deem the profession too dangerous.
Numerous states — including California, New Jersey, Washington
and Kentucky — have adopted safety guidelines for social workers and
caseworkers. NASW has consistently supported the Teri Zenner Social Worker
Safety Act in Congress, which would establish a grant program to provide for
safety measures such as GPS equipment, self-defense training, conflict
prevention, facility safety and more. It would also help with educational
resources and materials to train staff on safety and awareness measures.
The bill calls for Congress to authorize $5 million a year for
the next five years and require states to provide 50 percent matching funds.
The legislation currently has 50 co-sponsors in the House and we are seeking
Senate sponsorship for a companion bill.
Social workers and case workers elevate service to others
above self-interest, as outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics, and draw on their
knowledge, values and skills to help people in need and address social
problems. Although not every incidence of violence in the profession can be
prevented, many can. The severity of injuries sustained by social workers and
case workers can and must be reduced.
From a political standpoint, the public often takes an
interest in social work only when tragedy strikes, whether that tragedy is
perpetrated against a child or against the social worker. We must increase
public awareness of the ongoing risks and realities facing our nation’s social
workers, who continually put their lives on the line to ensure healthy families
and communities. We must use our voices to protect ourselves and our clients,
because often we are the only professionals willing to help those who need us
In an effort to honor our colleagues who have lost their lives
while performing social work duties, I am pleased to announce that NASW, in
partnership with the NASW Pioneers®,
will begin a memorial project in their memory. It is a small way to express our
gratitude for their service, and to remind others why safety is such an
important issue in our field. Please check the NASW Foundation website at www.naswfoundation.org for future
updates on this project.
From October 2010 NASW News. © 2010 National
Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved. NASW News
articles may be copied for personal use, but proper notice of
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