Slaying Renews Safety Concerns

In reaction to the brutal slaying of a social worker in West Virginia in late July, state lawmakers there are taking steps to review social work safety policies. Social work leaders are also emphasizing the need to pass federal legislation that addresses protection of the workforce.

Social worker Brenda Lee Yeager, 51, was killed July 30 while making a home visit for an infant in a rural and secluded area south of Huntington. The infant's parents, a 23-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman, have been charged with first-degree murder in relation to Yeager's death. Also, the man's father, 51, is charged with helping dispose of the body.

Police testified at preliminary court hearing in August that one of the suspects confessed that Yeager was hit on the head with a frying pan and sexually assaulted at knifepoint. Both parents allegedly took turns suffocating Yeager, according to testimony. Her body was found two days later in her car, which had been set on fire.

NASW West Virginia Chapter Executive Director Samuel Hickman said the tragedy incited calls to state lawmakers. Top leaders have been very supportive in agreeing to examine policies that could avoid a similar tragedy in the future, Hickman said. While the state legislature will not meet formally until February 2009, a study assignment to review issues related to social work safety was added to the legislature's interim agenda in August. Hickman said at press time that he and other experts were expected to testify before committee members in September about the need to improve social work safety.

"I am pleased with the legislative response to go over preliminary solutions," Hickman said.

The West Virginia Chapter executive director noted that although more needs to be done, advances have been made to protect social workers. A new state law includes "protective services workers" and "health care workers" among the classes already protected through increased criminal penalties for committing felony or misdemeanor assault and battery against protected workers operating in the line of duty.

Hickman also called out to social workers for support and issued a statement on the chapter Web site. He said, "It is the highest calling of our profession to utilize our skills, training and expertise to protect society's most vulnerable citizens. This calling often places social workers in extremely dangerous situations."

He added, "Please be assured that NASW West Virginia will lead efforts and work collaboratively to pursue safety measures that provide protection for social workers in the field as well as in office settings. We cannot bring Brenda Yeager back, but we can honor her memory by working to insure the safety of social workers and those we serve."

Besides West Virginia, other NASW Chapters are working to make social work safety a priority through their Social Work Reinvestment Initiatives, said Elizabeth Franklin, project manager for the NASW Social Work Reinvestment Initiative.

At the federal level, NASW has been working to promote passage of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr., Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 5447/S. 2858). The bills note that social workers are considerably safer when measures such as global positioning systems, self-defense training, and conflict prevention are implemented. It calls for the creation of a social work commission that would, among its many duties, study social work safety.

Also, a federal bill introduced in 2007 is named after a social worker case manager who was killed during a routine in-home visit with one of her clients in Kansas in 2004. NASW staff assisted in wording the Teri Zenner Social Workers Safety Act (H.R. 2165). The proposal would 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.