Recent Violent Acts Put Emphasis on Safety

graphic of a safety lectureGary McDaniel has a special reason for helping social workers learn skills that can protect them from harm.

He was a friend and professional colleague of Brenda Lee Yeager, a West Virginia social worker who was brutally killed by a young couple during a home visit in 2008.

McDaniel, a West Virginia licensed clinical social worker for Morgan County Schools, said Yeager’s tragic death inspired him to help other social workers in dealing with conflict resolution through safety workshops he hosts for the NASW West Virginia Chapter and other groups.

“Losing Brenda was one too many,” McDaniel said. “She was a sweet, lovely, unassuming woman. I do this as a way to honor her service and her sacrifice.”

McDaniel is a certified Crisis Prevention Institute instructor and teacher. “I teach different forms of crisis intervention,” he said during a recent workshop with the chapter. “It’s never our goal to harm anyone. We have an ethical obligation not to hurt people.” He also has a black belt in tae kwon do and teaches self-defense techniques to those who are interested.

McDaniel said there are three components to what he teaches:

  • How to avoid unsafe situations. “This can be achieved with something as simple as making sure the office furniture is arranged to allow for a quick exit,” he said.
  • How to trust personal intuition in unsafe conditions. “We talk about how to get out of that situation,” McDaniel said.
  • Physical training in case survival is ever threatened.

McDaniel, who was named West Virginia’s Social Worker of the Year this year, said all members of the workforce need to prepare themselves by taking some sort of safety training. “A lot can be accomplished with the universal sign of stop, by raising your hands and shouting it out,” he said.

“We’re suggesting simple practice and ways to ensure safety,” McDaniel explained. He noted that other professions, such as police officers and firefighters, typically receive regular safety training. Social workers deserve the same benefit, he said.

Sam Hickman, executive director of the NASW West Virginia Chapter, said McDaniel’s workshops have been well received. “He teaches us that there is always a solution to the conflict, as well as some self-defense,” Hickman said.

The West Virginia Chapter honored Yeager’s memory after her death by leading a charge to pass a law that compounds the consequences for those convicted of assaulting a state service worker.

Lawmakers increased the penalty for such a crime from a misdemeanor to a felony offense, thanks to the encouragement by the chapter and Yeager’s family, Hickman noted.

West Virginia is among several NASW chapters in recent years that have made positive strides in social work safety in the aftermath of violent acts against their colleagues.

The NASW Kansas Chapter this year helped convince legislators to pass a law that requires social work safety training as part of the state’s licensure process.

The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will require all social workers who are renewing their license for the first time to have six hours of social worker safety awareness training as part of the required continuing education. The requirement applies to all three levels of licensure: baccalaureate, master and clinical, said Kansas Chapter Executive Director Sky Westerlund.

“It is a one-time-only requirement, so if a social worker has taken the training for a prior level of license, it does not have to be repeated for a subsequent higher level of license,” she said.

The law is in honor of Kansas social work Teri Zenner, who was killed by a teenage client in 2004.

Teri Zenner’s husband, Matt Zenner, has worked with the chapter since his wife’s death to help enact the law. He told KCTV 5 News, “What happened to my wife, I don’t ever want to see happen ever again. Hopefully, this [law] will keep it from ever happening again.”

Teri Zenner’s father, Andy Mathis, told the Kansas City Star that the new law is a critical step in protecting social workers.

“It means Teri didn’t give her life in vain,” he told the newspaper. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Westerlund said the idea of combining safety with continuing education as part of licensure arose from a brainstorming session with Matt Zenner. She said Kansas is the first state to pass such a law.

“We focused on coming up with some type of training and self-protection program,” she said. “We didn’t want people to forget Teri. This new law will continue to go on and it will hopefully prevent future tragedies.”

In the meantime, Westerlund said she will work with the state’s licensure board to help draft the training.

“We’re doing this to give social workers more preparation so they have more choices in how they respond to a dangerous situation,” Westerlund said. “They have a right to be safe.”

Matt Zenner has also devoted his time to help social workers nationally by advocating for the passage of the Teri Zenner Social Work Safety Act, HR 1490, in Congress. The bill calls for the establishment of a state grant program that would provide safety measures to social workers and other professionals working with violent, drug-using or other at-risk populations. At press time, the bill had 50 co-sponsors.

NASW Lobbyist Asua Ofosu said the association is working with U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska, to introduce a Senate version of the bill.

“This is a bipartisan issue to secure safety for social workers just as police officers, firefighters and miners have,” Ofosu said. “This gives us one extra measure in having social workers feel secure.”

A Massachusetts task force established in 2008 seeks to pull together a list of social work safety programs from a variety of stakeholders. It was launched the same year that Massachusetts social worker Diruhi Mattain was fatally stabbed after trying to help a client with a domestic disturbance.

The task force consists of social workers, agencies, social work faculty and researchers, said NASW Massachusetts Chapter Executive Director Carol Trust.

She noted that the chapter, along with officials from the Boston University School of Social Work, researched a compilation of resources and policy procedures for social work safety. A follow-up to the safety summit is expected in November, Trust explained.

“We plan to highlight the work we have done and include a cadre of training information on how to stay safe for a new website that will come out in the fall,” she said. “It will include a list of resources that address safety. We hope it will be the go-to place to find policies recommended for private practices and agencies.”

The chapter is also preparing to assist state legislators in introducing new safeguards for social workers in the workplace this fall, Trust said.

Social work safety has also been the focus of university researchers. In September, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work issued a report titled, “A Study on Social Work Safety Practices.” The project was performed on behalf of the Kentucky Citizens Review Panel on how to improve social worker safety in the state.

The authors explain that the guiding principle for the project was Kentucky’s “Boni Bill,” which was enacted in 2007. It was drafted in response to the death of Boni Frederick, a social worker who was killed while conducting an in-home visit. The focus of the project was to learn what other states are doing to train, prepare and equip their employees to avoid a violent situation like the one that led to the creation of the Boni Bill.

Out of 26 jurisdictions, the authors received some level of response from 19 — Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, and the District of Columbia.

Though the report notes that not all questions were answered by the jurisdictions that responded, the document highlights agency policies, safety training requirements and curricula as well as other safety-related materials that can help guide improvement for workforce safety.

The report’s executive summary explained that the goal of the project was to “have the appropriate tools to recognize, avoid and adequately respond to dangerous situations.” Social workers “need the training, knowledge and equipment to do their jobs confidently and safely,” it stated.

It also highlights a 2004 NASW Center for Workforce Studies report in which 44 percent of respondents to a social work survey said they are faced with personal safety issues in their primary employment practice.

While efforts to research and improve social work safety across the country continue to move in a positive direction, there is also a new effort to remember and honor the social workers who have lost their lives while performing their jobs. NASW President James J. Kelly said the association, in partnership with the NASW Foundation Pioneers®, will begin a memorial project soon.

Social Work Pioneer® Bob Cohen said the idea came to him after noting the extent of public recognition given to police officers killed in the line of duty. “Social workers also, from time to time, put their lives in danger and don’t get the recognition,” Cohen said. “I think we should do more for the families and survivors of those killed in service. It’s an appropriate gesture.”