The Urgency of Social Worker Safety

James J. Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSWFrom the President

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 most.

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 NASW Foundation for future updates on this project.