Larry Betcher knows firsthand the danger a social worker can encounter on the job, as one of his clients once flashed a butcher knife at him during an at-home visit.
This is one reason safety training is so important for social workers, said Betcher, an NASW board member.
“Social workers work with a wide range of patients. Many have capabilities to act out in a violent way,” he said. “People with mental illness don’t necessarily have an increased risk of danger, not in reality, but they may think they’re in danger and try to harm their social worker. Knowing de-escalation techniques, the ability to get out of a dangerous situation, and trusting your intuition, can help to keep a social worker safe.”
Several NASW chapters have taken social work safety training to heart, and the executive directors and staff have provided classes, workshops and information to members, students and nonmembers.
“The Massachusetts Chapter has been involved in social work safety training for quite some time,” said Julie Balasalle, the chapter’s government relations and political action associate. “We have started a safety training program that consists of 11 trainers who we regularly work with to get social work safety training done in agencies (where social workers are employed).”
NASW-Massachusetts has been instrumental in working with state Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, and state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, Balasalle said, on filing legislation that would require all licensed agencies to have safety plans in place, including safety training for all employees.
“We work with agency administrators to talk about what a safety plan should look like, we work with schools of social work to prep students on safety for when they go into the field, and we advocate for legislation and state guidelines,” said Balasalle, whose past experience of being physically assaulted by a client reminds her that a good social work safety plan can help.
“As a new social worker at that time, I was completely unprepared,” she said. “That experience changed the way I practiced clinically. And we can do a better job of preparing social workers (for) what to expect, and how to protect themselves.”
Eva Skolnik-Acker is a key social work safety trainer at NASW-Massachusetts. She said although the chapter has been active in recent safety training, the concept is far from new.
“ … I have been doing this work for more than two decades, (and) this is the very best time in terms of safety to be a social worker,” she said. “The tide has turned from minimizing, avoiding or denying this could happen to us, to embracing the reality and doing something about it — not just in Massachusetts, but everywhere in the country.”
Kimberly Harper, executive director of the NASW Wyoming Chapter, has served as a guest lecturer on social work safety training for students at the University of Wyoming’s division of social work. She said safety training has been addressed in the state’s schools of social work for the last couple of years.
“The Wyoming Chapter is committed to providing education on social work safety training,” she said.
This is also true in Kansas, where legislation has positively impacted social work safety.
“In 2010, the Kansas Legislature passed a law that required new social workers to have six hours of continuing education on social work safety awareness, within the first two years of licensure,” said NASW-Kansas Executive Director Sky Westerlund. “We are the only state that has taken this approach — equipping the social worker with knowledge, awareness and skills to provide services while maintaining self-safety within the work environment.”
The NASW Kansas Chapter offers safety awareness trainings at least twice a year, Westerlund said.
“Social workers face violence much more than one would think,” she said. “It is time to expose this reality as well as advocate for solid workforce safety measures from agencies and even increased pay because of the reality of danger.”
NASW-West Virginia Executive Director Sam Hickman said he has always viewed social work safety as a particular interest to the chapter and the rural state of West Virginia.
“In my 28 years with the NASW West Virginia Chapter, two social workers and one eligibility worker have been murdered in the line of duty,” Hickman said. “The next step was to encourage social workers to more actively embrace safety concepts and practices, and to empower them to be their own best advocates for safety.”
Hickman sees the chapter’s large annual conference as a platform to attract both members and nonmembers from across the state and region to educate them on social work safety training.
“We were confident we could reach a lot of social workers through a variety of skill-building workshops scheduled throughout the conference,” he said. “The fall conference is another good opportunity to offer access and content.”
James Holler, who presented a program called “Social Workers — Making a Case for Safety” at the NASW-West Virginia conference, said news of a social worker being harmed or killed can cause a lot of initial responses but not many tangible solutions.
“When a social worker is killed, our first reactions are to form a committee, enact and enhance existing laws, and enhance penalties for the perpetrators,” he said. “Everything is done in a knee-jerk reactive way, and after a few months we tend to forget because there is no follow-up. The one thing we fail to do is give social workers the proper tools needed to better protect themselves.”
There are several things a social worker can do to make their jobs safer, starting with the basics.
“Don’t keep scissors or anything sharp on your desk,” Harper said.
“Never corner your client or prevent them from leaving (in an aggressive situation),” Betcher said. “Know your exits before sitting down with a client.”
Have some self-awareness before going into a potentially dangerous situation, Balasalle advised.
“There are social workers who will say, ‘I can handle that,’ because they have so much experience,” she said. “But it never hurts to check in about your own level of safety and what your intuition tells you.”
Cpl. Gary Goodrich, of the Forysth County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina, served as a social work safety speaker at the annual NASW-North Carolina Clinical Institute.
Goodrich offers social workers advice from a law enforcement perspective.
“Don’t be overzealous of the social work philosophy to save everyone,” he said. “Don’t be consumed with being liked and being the best provider this person has ever had if it compromises your own safety.”
The bottom line is to be aware of yourself and of your surroundings, he said, and to be particularly careful when conducting in-home visits. Carrying a smartphone with GPS tracking can help 911 operators pinpoint an exact location should the unexpected occur.
“Always have your cell phone with you and turned on,” Goodrich said. “If you call 911 and don’t know your cross streets or can’t speak, the GPS device will help them find you.”
Social workers should always be prepared for “what if” situations, Holler said.
“These are the situations that occur when we least expect it — the knife attack, the shooting incident, stumbling in on a meth lab ... If they haven’t thought about these ‘what if’ situations or received any training on how to respond, when the time comes the brain will freeze.”
Holler added that social workers should always pay attention to their surroundings, read the body language of the people they are visiting and practice the “what if” game in their mind.
“It could save their life,” he said.
Professional social workers are already equipped with certain skills that serve them well in precarious situations, Hickman said, such as assessment, awareness of human behavior, effective communication, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques.
“A downside to these can be a sense of overconfidence, and social workers sometimes feel responsible to the extent it can cloud their better judgment,” Hickman said. “(But) these tendencies are easily addressed through effective training, supervision, peer support and experience.”
Janet Nelson, a social work safety trainer at the NASW West Virginia Chapter’s annual conference, said social worker deaths are few and far between, but it’s still necessary to be prepared.
“This profession involves being in a lot of dire situations and circumstances with social workers thinking a good heart and altruistic endeavor will keep them safe,” she said. “But with everything we face, we really have to incorporate safety into our training.”
The Teri Zenner Social Work Safety Act
In August 2004, social worker Teri Lea Zenner, a graduate of Kansas University, was killed when she conducted an at-home visit to check on a client.
The client stabbed her in the neck and then nearly decapitated her with a chain saw. The client, who was on medication and diagnosed with schizotypal, was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery.
After Zenner’s death, NASW’s Kansas Chapter worked with her husband, Matt Zenner, to advocate for safety measures for other social workers, said Kansas Chapter Executive Director Sky Westerlund.
“He did not want what happened to his wife to happen to any (other) social worker,” she said.
NASW-Kansas worked with state legislative leaders, and in 2010 the requirement was passed for all new social workers to obtain no less than six hours of safety awareness training within the first two years of their licensure.
“We choose to take this route because both Mr. Zenner and the chapter believe that, in the moment of extreme danger, it is the social worker and only the social worker who must know what to do to stay safe,” Westerlund said.
The NASW national office is currently working to reintroduce the Teri Zenner Social Work Safety Act on Capitol Hill. The act, introduced initially in 2007, will mandate establishing a grant program to provide safety measures for social workers, including providing them with GPS equipment, self-defense training, conflict prevention and facility safety.
In addition, the act will help make resources and materials available to social workers so they can be trained on appropriate safety measures and awareness.