States Make Progress in Promoting Safety

Violence against a social worker once again made national headlines in May when uniformed social worker and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Charles Keith Springle was killed by gunfire along with four colleagues at a mental health clinic in Baghdad, Iraq (see related story in this issue).

A 44-year-old Army sergeant who was ordered to undergo counseling has been charged with five counts of murder in relation to the killings. The tragedy is the latest example of how important it is for social workers to get special training and resources to protect them while performing their jobs. In recent years, several social workers and social work aides have lost their lives while on duty.

Keeping social workers safe is an ongoing challenge. Social workers continue to help the profession and aid the workforce by conducting studies and advocating for policies and laws that train and protect their colleagues from being victims of violence.

NASW has been a strong advocate for social work safety legislation at the federal level. Most recently, the association urged members to contact their representatives in Washington, D.C., to cosponsor the Teri Zenner Social Work Safety Act (H.R. 1490), which was reintroduced this year. It seeks to establish a grant program to assist in the provision of safety measures to protect social workers and other professionals who work with at-risk populations. It is named after Zenner, who was stabbed and killed during a routine, in-home visit with a client of the Johnson County Mental Health Center in Kansas in 2004.

Also, the Social Work Reinvestment Act (S. 686, H.R. 795) calls for safety provisions through a Social Work Reinvestment Commission study and through demonstration programs.

NASW chapters continue to play a major role in advocating for safety provisions in the private and public workforce. Some of the latest efforts by chapters include the following.

West Virginia. One year ago this month, social worker Brenda Lee Yeager, 51, was brutally killed while conducting a visitation for an infant in rural West Virginia. The infant’s parents, a 23-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman, are awaiting trial in Yeager’s death. Each is charged with first-degree murder. Police testified at a preliminary court hearing last year that one of the suspects confessed that Yeager was hit on the head with a frying pan and sexually assaulted at knifepoint. Testimony revealed that both parents allegedly took turns suffocating Yeager. Her body was found two days later in her car, which had been set on fire. The man’s father is also charged with helping dispose of the body.

The West Virginia NASW Chapter immediately went to work, petitioning state lawmakers to better protect social workers and other workers who represent the state from being victims of such a vicious crime.

Chapter Executive Director Sam Hickman testified before a state committee on the need to protect social workers like Yeager, who was working as a contract employee for the state. The effort resulted in a bill that was referred to internally as the social work safety bill. Social workers were joined by members of Yeager’s family in telling lawmakers about why the bill mattered. The effort paid off. In May, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III signed the bill into law. Hickman said it means that state contract workers such as Yeager will be better protected. The law now states that assaulting such a worker is a felony offense instead of a simple misdemeanor. “This means it’s a more heinous crime to assault a social worker in the line of duty,” Hickman said. “It gives us the opportunity to sit down with clients and say, ‘I can’t help you unless I am safe. If something happens to me, it’s a felonious offense, so you have to make sure the situation is safe for me.’”

Hickman said the revised law is not the end of promoting safety measures in the state. “This is a fitting tribute to the memory of our colleague and an important tool for social workers across West Virginia,” he said. “It’s an important first step.”

More needs to be done, the executive director noted. “We need policies and procedures for communication to keep social workers in constant contact.”

Hickman said Yeager’s violent death should be a wake-up call to lawmakers to devote more attention to safety regulations. “We’re developing relationships with other safety organizations and working to find solutions,” he said.

He noted social workers need to keep up the effort to advocate for safety policies and procedures in the workplace. “We can’t help people unless we’re safe,” he said. “We need to take responsibility for our own safety and not have the attitude that ‘It will be OK if I do this.’”

Employers need to do their part as well, Hickman said.

“Our employers need to back us up on this by enforcing policies and practices,” he said. Some simple steps include making sure staff keep track of where their colleagues are during visits with clients, he added.

Massachusetts. In winter 2008, the Boston Globe noted social worker Diruhi Mattian was fatally stabbed after trying to help a client deal with a domestic disturbance.

The Massachusetts NASW Chapter along with the state’s schools of social work held a summit that addressed social work safety. From that meeting, a task force was developed to come up with some solutions. The Massachusetts Chapter is doing its part by hosting a Committee for the Study and Prevention of Violence Against Social Workers. Executive Director Carol Trust, along with Judith Peristein, co-chairs the committee. Its goal has been to track and understand the dangers that social workers may encounter in and around the workplace. The committee is made up of officials from schools of social work, state agencies, social services officials and chapter members.

According to the chapter, based on a survey of members, more than half said they were assaulted in some way in an incident related to their job. More than three-quarters of the respondents said they were verbally abused. An equal number said they have situations where they have been frightened, even without physical or verbal threats.

The task force is working on the finishing touches of a safety guideline and policy document that will be useful to schools of social work in preparing students for field work, Trust said. The document, which is expected to be completed sometime this year, could also be used by agencies and private practices, she noted. “We want to make it a model for the country,” Trust said.

It is vital to the profession to maintain vigilance for social work safety, the executive director said. “We need to support social workers in the field because they deal with highly unpredictable situations. It’s our obligation to not only be mindful of our own safety, but also the safety of the clients who may be out of control. We need to know how to work with them because sometimes they can be in highly emotional situations. We can’t go into this business unknowingly. We can’t be victims of our own work. This will help put social workers in the driver’s seat.”

Louisiana. Carmen Weisner, executive director of the Louisiana Chapter, said members took the lead in 2005 in helping get a law passed that elevates the level of punishment for anyone guilty of assaulting child welfare and case-appointed special advocate workers. “We worked well with a first-time legislator on this legislation,” she said. “It was a learning experience for him and others, who, through strong testimony from the front-line child welfare staff, were able to paint a picture of the difficulty of their work when they have safety concerns.”

Kansas. Sky Westerlund, executive director of the Kansas Chapter, said members will continue to advocate for passage of a social worker safety training bill, which proposes to require six hours of safety training for any social worker licensed in Kansas who is renewing his or her license for the first time, making it part of the required continuing education needed for licensure renewal. The chapter is also involved in planning safety training for more than 400 people in the Kansas City area through a federal grant, Westerlund said.

Idaho. In April, around 60 social workers and social work students attended an NASW Chapter and Lewis-Clark State College sponsored event, “Worker Safety at the Office and in the Field.” Kelli Loftus, assistant professor of social work at the Lewis-Clark State College, gave tips to attendees on ways to be safe.

Kentucky. Antoinette Joyce, executive director of the Kentucky Chapter, said that even though laws get passed that address social work safety, it’s important to make sure what was promised actually takes effect.

In 2007, Kentucky lawmakers passed the Boni Frederick Bill into law. The legislation was named in honor of Frederick, a social services aide who was found killed in 2006 after bringing a 9-month-old boy to a scheduled visit with his mother. The child’s mother and her boyfriend pled guilty to first-degree murder charges and each is serving a life sentence.

Joyce said the bill’s provisions asked for additional social workers and social service aides at the state level as well as communication devices for the workforce. It also called for the allocation of millions of dollars to fund the effort. Unfortunately, recent news reports have surfaced that claim none of the law’s provisions have taken place. “It’s very unfortunate,” said Joyce. “We’ve been told that nothing has changed.”

She said social work advocates will be joining union organizers this year in insisting the law’s provisions are enacted. “We will keep plugging along,” she said