On August 7, 2015, Lara Sobel was killed by a disgruntled client outside of her office. Although this murder has gotten some recent attention, the media presence of most violent acts against social workers are typically miniscule.
Social work is one of riskiest, low paying job that gets little to no recognition. Often times alone, Social workers go into the homes of people who may be psychiatrically unstable, members of gangs, sex offenders, or even people who have previously been convicted of murder. Most social workers believe (rightfully so) that most of their clients are inherently good and have made or are trying to make positive changes in their lives. However, there is still risk to visiting these homes, as well as meeting in small, private offices alone with them.
In general, people are unpredictable. Throw any of the above factors into the equation, and you’ve got someone whose behaviors can follow any path. So, what is the value that society has placed on social workers? How much are we worth? How much are we compensated for the increased risks we take every day? The median salary for social workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $44,200 per year.
Honestly, as a supervisor of non-profit programs for the past 5 years, I can tell you that this is actually on the higher side of salaries that employees in this field make. Some social workers make less than $30,000 per year! When I first started my career in mental health in 2008, I was paid $2,000 above the poverty level. Most social workers and mental health professionals will continue to risk their safety because they believe in the work they do with their clients. So, if professionals will sacrifice a low salary in order to help people, what else will we, as a society, do for them to stay safe?
Firstly, we need to determine what can be done to decrease the risks involved. In March 2009, the Teri Zenner Social Worker Safety Act was introduced to Congress. The act would “authorize the Secretary of Health and Human Services, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to award grants to states to provide safety measures to social workers and other professionals working with violent, drug-using, or other at-risk populations. Authorized grants would be used to provide or support:
(1) the procurement and installation of safety equipment, including communications systems to assist agencies in locating staff, and technical assistance and training for safety communications;
(2) training exercises for self-defense and crisis management;
(3) facility safety improvements;
(4) provision of pepper spray for self-defense;
(5) training in cultural competency and on strategies for de-escalating a situation that could turn volatile;
(6) training to help workers who work with mentally ill communities and who need help coping;
(7) educational resources and materials to train staff on safety and awareness measures
The Act would also direct the Secretary to establish guidelines for assuring the cost-effectiveness and quality of the safety measures funded.” Although well-intentioned, the bill was never voted on and died in Congress by 2010.
There have also been suggestions of passing laws to make violent acts against social workers an automatic felony—giving harsher punishment may make clients think harder about their actions.
Until legislation is passed, there are other important factors to the safety of social workers. From experience, I can say the most effective and imperative safety precaution is supervisory support. I’m amazed at how few supervisors support their staff members, even if they do most of their work in the community.
A staff member should be fully informed of a client’s history and most recent mental status prior to being asked to see them. This includes if the client has a criminal history, history of sexual assault or abuse, history of dealing drugs, etc. A staff member should always have the right to refuse to see a client if they are uncomfortable—and no staff member should ever be formally or informally penalized for not seeing a client who makes them uncomfortable.
Additionally, supervisors have the responsibility to train their staff on safety precautions, including assessment of environmental factors (What’s the neighborhood like? Does the social worker know the exact address of the visit? Have there been any recent events in the neighborhood that may increase risk, such as homicides, robberies, etc.?), use of mobile phones, making sure they are fully charged and working before going into the community, and safety measures to take when in the client’s home.
Supervisors also have the responsibility of pointing out to a staff member when they may be in danger and/or minimizing the actual risk of situations. I have, on many occasions, reminded staff members in my clinical supervisions with them of situations which may pose risks—a client whose partner is abusing them, a client who has been engaging in sex work in their home, a client who always has a group of people in their home—and I recommend that they assess the situation prior to home visits and/or arrange to meet the client elsewhere in the community.
Sometimes staff members will say, “It’s fine. I know my client” or “I can handle it.” It is important to allow them to make their own decisions, but a supervisor should always present the costs and potential risks involved in going forward with the visit. It is necessary for supervisor to explain that it is not a matter of not knowing the client or not being able to handle stressful situations—it’s about safety. Safety for clients and staff should be the number one priority in this field.
What do you think a social worker’s value is? What have your experiences been like as a social worker? Leave a comment below.
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