Social Worker Safety Issues

Social workers should be informed when there is police activity nearby.
i Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images

Social workers make their living by helping others, and the agencies that employ them want to keep them as safe as possible. But there have been murders of social workers by their own clients, leading agencies to step up their safety training and to implement safety policies and procedures where none existed before.

Social Workers in Public Settings

In 2011, a social worker was murdered by her client at a mental health facility in Revere, Massachusetts. Social workers are often in a position to make authoritative decisions about child custody, about psychiatric hospitalization, and about terms of probation or parole, making them frequent scapegoats for disgruntled clients. They also routinely work with potentially unstable individuals, including addicts, the mentally ill, and the formerly incarcerated. Social workers must be trained in basic self defense, but also must be protected by the agencies in which they work. Agencies install "panic buttons" in offices and hallways that immediately summon security personnel to the location. They can also arrange social workers' offices and desks so as to reduce the potential of assault, and provide around-the-clock security.

Community Social Workers

Many social workers work in the community, visiting clients in schools, group homes, community centers, health clinics, shelters and residences. These social workers often visit unfamiliar and potentially unsafe neighborhoods, making them vulnerable to assault, to robbery, and to car theft or carjacking. For this reason, they must be on high alert at all times. They are trained to keep all valuables, including cell phones, locked inside the vehicle to avoid attracting muggers.

Police Activity

Because of the mobile nature of their work, community social workers must use their best judgment about the safety of entering certain neighborhoods. In urban areas, violent crime and police activity are fairly common. Agencies can help to protect social workers by setting up a mass text message system that alerts all workers about any developing police situation, and by also asking police officers to advise their staff about neighborhoods notorious for gang activity and violent crime. Agencies can also instate a lockdown policy, which keeps all personnel inside when a police investigation is occurring in the neighborhood of the agency.

In-Home Social Workers

Social workers in an office or community setting are vulnerable to violence, but those who visit clients in their homes have another level of potential threats to contend with. Because there are no security guards, social workers must exercise judgment about their level of personal safety. In-home social workers must be specially trained to recognize the warning signs of violence. Often, a client will have a number of people cycling in and out of the home, people the social worker does not know. The social worker should sit close to the door in case trouble or a threat erupts, allowing her to exit quickly. Some agencies require social workers to travel in pairs to increase their security. Using GPS technology, panic buttons can be disguised as jewelry, and when pressed, alert local law enforcement.

the nest