Social work, just like other occupations, has its own hazards. It may even be called a dangerous profession as each worker steps out of the office and into the homes of people in crisis. Armed only with a burning passion to help individuals and their families, a social worker’s day is full of actual and potential risks.
Teri Zenner, a case manager at the Johnson County (Kansas) Mental Health Center, was stabbed to death while paying a visit to the home of a 17-year-old client diagnosed with a mental illness. This happened in August 2004.
In a similar case, Greg Gaul, a licensed private clinical social worker in Johnson, Iowa, was also killed by a troubled 16-year-old client. The young man also previously killed his house sitter and later took his own life in a police chase.
Unfortunately, these are not just isolated events. But such episodes have emphasized the great need for social workers and the agencies they work for to protect themselves. Here are some safety tips for those involved in day-to-day social work.
Create a safety action plan. This plan should consist of precautions that will help you avoid a dangerous situation. Your safety plan should also consist of strategies that will be of great use when managing conflicts, should they occur.
Assess your safety. Get as much information as you can about the family’s history: Does the family have a history of violent encounters with the authorities? Is there a familial tendency and history of mental illness? Some of the information you will need might be noted in agency records. For the rest, you may have to get it from other informal sources, such as your supervisor or colleagues from other agencies.
Consider the street, neighborhood, or area where the family resides. Exercise extra caution in known drug areas, isolated places, or high-crime locations. Make sure your car works without worry and there is enough gas to get home.
Your agency supervisor must be fully aware of any home visit that you make. Provide the supervisor with the nitty-gritty details like time of your departure, time they should expect you to return, other activities you are planning to engage in while conducting the home visit, and more.
Do not conduct a home visit if you feel uncomfortable or threatened. Return to the agency and report your experience.
When you’re already in your client’s home, immediately identify potential safety risks. Be alert and observant. Before entering, listen for any disturbances, such as screaming or fighting. Upon knocking, one should not stand in front of the door; instead, one should stand to the side of it.
Note for signs of intoxication in the people you are speaking with. Scan the home setting for the presence of any weapons or any drug paraphernalia.
Learn how to do de-escalation. Appear calm, centered, and self-assured even if you do not feel it. Do not be defensive. Know that insults directed at you are not about you at all. Empathize with the feelings, but not with the behavior. Do not turn your back for any reason. Do not get loud or yell over the screaming of a person. The best time to talk is when the person calms down.
Trust your instincts. If you feel that the de-escalation process is not working, then STOP! Call for help or leave.
Work with your agency to establish specific safety precautions in the office and field. Together with the agency’s supervisor, create a worker safety manual that clarifies policies and procedures. The manual should also establish cooperative safety protocols with the other organizations you work with.
While it is true that social work can be a treacherous job and the salary is sometimes not enough for the clientele that you deal with, the dangers need not be a hindrance to your desire and commitment to help people who need you. By following a few precautions and the standard policies, you can engage in social work without encountering the dangers associated with it.
Visit Social Worker Data for more information on becoming a social worker. Do not be frightened by this article—social work is a very rewarding career and at the end of the day, you will feel extremely exuberant for being able to help those in need.