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NASW CEO Angelo McClain talks about ways to improve social worker safety

Lara Sobel. Photo courtesy of boston.cbslocal.com.

Lara Sobel. Photo courtesy of boston.cbslocal.com.

National Association of Social Workers (NASW) CEO Angelo McClain said Monday during an interview on National Public Radio Vermont that there should be a National Social Worker Safety Act to help protect social workers from violence.

The national law should be modeled after a Massachusetts law passed in 2013 that followed the recommendations of the NASW Massachusetts Chapter, McClain, PhD, LICSW said.

That law requires programs that provide direct services to clients that are operated by, licensed, certified, or funded by a department or division of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services have a workplace violence prevention and crisis response plan.

NPR interviewed McClain and others in the aftermath of the August 7 shooting death of Vermont Department for Children and Families employee Lara Sobel. Sobel was allegedly shot by a woman whose daughter was taken from her custody. The shooter also reportedly killed three family members.

McClain, citing some tips outlined in NASW’s Guidelines for Social Worker Safety in the Workplace, said having two social workers go out on home visits or installing panic buttons so social workers can alert police, are ways to lessen the chance social workers and other social service employees will be injured.

Social service employees and even students in social work schools should also get training on what to do in a violent situation or how to defuse situations before they escalate, he said.

“There is a lot of danger in the job but most of the families we worked with we were able to engage with them,” said McClain, who was a caseworker and former commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.  “As you have those skills, the families can see you are trying to help and not judge them and put them down.”

For more information on this issue visit the NASW Social Work Safety website. You can read the NASW Vermont Chapter statement on Sobel’s death at www.naswvt.org.

 

 

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20 Comments

  1. I agree this is a very serious and important issue that needs to be addressed. I do have one question, though. The article doesn’t mention how these programs would be expected to fund violence prevention and crisis response planning that would be required by the suggested legislation. Safety interventions are vital to protect social workers (no argument there), but in organizations that are already strapped for resources, understaffed, and underfunded, I think the government needs to do more than just implement requirements that put even more demands on programs that are already stretched thin. It needs to provide adequate funding so that programs are actually capable of fulfilling the responsibilities that they are expected to fulfill. Social workers too often get a bad rap for not meeting expectations when they are doing everything they can with the resources that they have at their disposal. It’s time that programs that are providing invaluable services that are as crucial as child protective services and other similar programs that help families be made a priority.

  2. Team Work is one of the best ways to protect those in dangerous jobs. It also gives you an extra set of eyes to assess the danger to not just the caseworkers but the children they are trying to protect.

    Angelo McClain knows what he is talking about. Hope every state listens to him and makes the necessary changes. Children and Families need the protection and help offered by these caring and dedicated people. We sure need to keep them safe and we can do this all over the country if our voices are heard.

  3. It’s almost as scary to be a social worker as it is to be a foster child

  4. The best way to serve the social workers would be to improve their services. Case failure rates to the children are above 85%, and in some counties higher than 94%. Any person involved with losing custody to what is arguably the most vicious source of child abuse in this nation should take note of this event.

  5. What would be better is for social workers to be required to wear body cams to prevent the lies and deception they use to steal kids.

    Stealing kids is what gets social workers killed.

    More accountability for the social workers and an open court system.

  6. Sarah North – the woman in the story ended up killing three family members and a social worke (Lara Sobel). Do you honestly believe that the social worker was ‘stealing’ the child when the perpetrator more or less proved the reasons why this child needed to be removed from the home?

    Your comment is crass, ignorant, and victim-blaming.

  7. Sara North- let me guess? Either you or a family member had a child removed? States don’t WANT to have to remove children. It costs a lot of money to remove a child. Perhaps denial of why the child was removed is your true issue.

  8. Sara North,
    Your plain ignorance on this subject is almost comical. CPS doesn’t “steal” kids to fill a quota, satisfy a vendetta, or spite anyone. CPS removes children when they are at imminent risk of harm by their caretaker. Your sheer level of incompetence when it comes to a worker’s job is rather frustrating to say the least. You obviously have never seen first hand the psychological and sometimes physical damage that substance abuse, domestic violence, untreated mental health issues, and physical abuse can have on a child. I have. As a CPS worker myself, I see it everyday. You sound like someone who quite possibly have had their child(ren) removed from their custody and are just looking to find a scapegoat instead of taking responsibility for your actions. Read a book, do some research, and enlighten yourself on this topic before you make assenine assumptions.

  9. Clearly, Sarah North does not understand what it takes in order to remove a child from a home. We can’t just go in and “snatch” a child (except in the very rare cases where there is imminent danger). We must prove to a judge that we need to assume custody because a child is not safe and there is “imminent risk.” There are enormous amounts of hoops to jump through and I have never heard a social worker “lie” to take a child. We have to prove through “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence” why a child is not safe. And I agree with the above poster that someone who shot and killed three family members and a social worker only proved why they should not have had the child in their care…and that is just incredibly sad. It sounds to me as if the social worker did her job and paid for it with her life.

  10. This is why as a young social worker and as a young mother…I dont work for OCY and often refuse jobs for OCY (even nder civil service). Though, as I just graduated college in rural PA…those are the only jobs available in my County. Going into homes to investigate sexual and physical abuse. Because I cant carry protection of any kind of my own…I refuse to do it and out my four tear old in danger of not having a mother. Though pays well…pays more than any job I’ve ever applied for as a Bachelor…I couldn’t ever risk my safety as a mother. Though knowingly could save lifes of many children. Im glad this issue it getting addressed. It should be a National Issue amoung social workers in every state. *heartbreaking to hear about this lady*

  11. As a person in her last year of graduate school for social work this article scares me. It was sort of justifies the fear I had to take an internship with a local agency that would have required me to go on house visits by myself. I have never agreed with the idea of putting a social worker or any social services worker for that matter, in a position where there could be potential harm to that person. Doing home visits are just as dangerous for social workers as they are for police officers. They don’t allow them to do home visits alone, do they? And they have a firearm and other skills to protect themselves. If agencies are going to consistently make social workers do home visits alone, they should, at least, provide self defense classes and mace for them to carry. At least they are going into a potential situation with some sort of knowledge on how to protect themselves.

  12. I just wrote a blog about this very important topic. http://bfreesecc.blogspot.com

  13. This topic is really relevant to me currently, considering my agency had an employee who was tragically and violently raped and murdered by a client. It’s one of the first things that pops up when you google my agency, and in response to this horrible crime my employer has really stepped up safety protocols. We have a team of security officers, panic buttons at each desk, and we take mandatory crisis prevention and de-escalation training (including last resort self defense techniques), and take walkies or a coworker with us when doing home visits in the facility. I’ve heard from other social workers how they don’t take ANY of these precautions, and it horrifies me. Bad things will happen no matter what, but let’s at least make smart decisions and do all we can to protect each other.

  14. I do not support placing two social workers at risk and expecting that two social workers can assist if they are going out to a potentially escalating situation. As a supervisor and a supervisor that takes clients for adult protective services investigations, we request that the local police or sheriff escort workers in the community if we are aware of a potential risk to anyone’s safety, client or worker. I have been in this position for 16 yrs and the police are willing to be escorts when we request their assistance. Lara’s murder will never be forgotten.

  15. Violence directed at Social Workers is an increasingly common and concerning issue both in the community and in inpatient settings. Along with policies and safeguards it is important for Social Workers to continually educate themselves based on data and research regarding high risk environments as well as mitigation strategies. Courses such as https://app.procredit-ceu.com/courses/67 are an excellent place to start (also offers CEUs). It is important for Social Workers to engage administration and management to put concrete plans in place to mitigate violence in work settings. Safety committees that meet regularly composed of Social Workers and Management are critical to starting the conversation and ensuring that safeguards are put in place.

  16. As a social worker, I agree that safety measures are needed, but in the tragic case of Lisa Sobel, none of the precautions suggested (not going to home visits alone, having a panic button) would have worked. The perpetrator attacked Lisa while she was leaving work.
    On another note, I don’t feel as grad school or agencies prepare social workers who take jobs working in the home. Here in Maryland, many of the jobs that require home visits are not just for the state or child welfare agencies, but for outpatient mental health clinics that provide in-home or mobile treatment therapy as an option for clients. As a new graduate, one is offered many of these jobs and many clinicians really like mental health therapy in the home with clients. I just wish that the hiring agencies better prepared their therapists for this type of work. Even just basic safety tips weren’t covered when I worked at one such agency.

  17. I work for a software company and as a former social worker, I bring this topic up quite frequently. When we talk about tracking social workers, workers and unions get upset stating that they do not want their movements being watched. There are other options. I came across this app recently that lets workers in the field check in and out (at their own discretion) so that their whereabouts are known. It doesn’t solve all safety problems but being able to share when you come and go, is a great for those who care about your personal safety. Check it out, http://antris.com/.

  18. Dear Executive Board Members,

    School shootings and violence in the workplace make headlines, but the threats social workers face too often escape attention. I hope NASW will shine a spotlight on the dangers social workers may experience as they strive to help others, and initiate steps to prevent tragedies like the one that struck down Laura Sobel.

    Recently, I felt compelled to address the issue regarding safety in the workplace at the NASW Suffolk Chapter Clinical Committee meeting. My concerns were generated from two recent events that occurred.

    In August 2015, Lara Sobel, one of our sisters in social work, was shot and killed in Burre City, Vermont. She was shot by a client as she left her office at the Department for Children and Families. The motive appeared to be related to a child custody case she was handling. Her own two young children are now motherless.

    Not all threats to social workers end in a fatality, but on a day-to-day basis they can add to the stress of already stressful work or lead to the loss of a job. I speak from personal experience. Repeated harassment at my office caused me to resign my job . The harassment included multiple incidents leading too where I was cut off on the expressway as I drove to and from work. The last time this happened I was so frightened that I telephoned a family member to meet me and follow me home. I was terrified and afraid for my safety. I was working as a contractor and my company was supportive. I choose to resign because I was fearful of retaliation if I pursued an investigation. There were many sacrifices I had to make regarding this decision, however, my family’s and my safety was my first priority. My reflections caused me to think of Lara Sobel and her family. How she is no longer raising her children, her family’s loss and the loss to our society with her efforts to make an impact on children and families.

    Social Workers often put their lives on the line each day, but this reality is seldom recognized by our own profession. Social Workers are often faced with significant risks of job related violence. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines workplace violence as “violent acts” including physical acts, threats and harassment directed toward persons in the workplace.

    Social Workers often work in settings such as Hospitals, Residential Treatment , Non-Residential Treatment Services, Community Care, Field Work, Criminal Justice, and Private Practice, which may increase their risk of being a victim of workplace violence. Often Social Workers are providing services that leave them vulnerable to dangerous situations. We can be at risk when we work with people who are under a great deal of mental distress.

    Our own research supports the need to place more emphasis on protecting social workers. In 2004 NASW partnered with the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Albany to conduct a study of 10,000 licensed Social Workers. The study had a 50 percent response rate and 44 percent of the respondents answered that they had concerns for their safety. It’s even more worrisome that 33 percent did not think their employers addressed their safety concerns adequately.

    While this was a small sample of Social Workers in the workforce, I couldn’t help but to be alarmed of how many Social Workers are at risk for being subjected to violence at the workplace.

    We do have tools, such as mediation, filing grievances and complaints with human resources department, personal counseling or coaching, to deal with safety issues. Informally we can seek support from family,friends, colleagues and supervision. Too often these resources aren’t utilized. The resilience of an employee in these situations may depend upon reaching out for help and support.

    The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1976 states “To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women: by authorizing enforcement of the standards under the act: by assisting and encouraging states in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions by providing for research, information ,education and training in the field of occupational safety and health”.

    In order for workplace violence prevention to be effective there also must be a commitment from our governing body, NASW, to implement and enforce the Occupational Safety Act of 1976 standards. Effective leadership begins when there is a recognition of a problem and a drive to initiate change.

    Here are some thoughts and recommendations shared regarding ways to address Workplace Violence Prevention:
    1. Training and education for managers and supervisors;
    2. Development of a workplace prevention plan which includes policy and procedures, rights and responsibilities of employers and employees.
    3. Development of a workplace violence prevention confidential call centers which would be recorded and monitored by NASW State Chapters.
    4. Development of workplace violence prevention regional and local safety committees which would include an analysis to identify hazards, conditions, operations and situations that could lead to potential violence.
    5. Establishment of comprehensive program which includes counseling and debriefing for workers who have experienced or witnessed trauma.
    5. Cyber Security and IT Protection.

    While this list is not all inclusive to the proactive response to workplace violence prevention it would stand as a beginning for our field to stand with and behind, to value and embrace, and represent and protect the Social Workers in workforce.

    Violence can not be addressed in isolation, let us stand together.

    With Kind Regards,

    Ingrid Campbell, LCSW

  19. Ms. Campbell:

    First of all thanks for the contributions you have made to society by becoming a social worker. We are sorry that safety issues have caused you to resign a position.

    This is a thoughtful response to the issue of social work safety. I will share it with officials at NASW, including NASW CEO Angelo McClain.

    Take care.

    Greg Wright
    NASW Public Relations Manager

  20. I was assaulted by a forensic patient (inmate) on an inpatient psychiatric unit while working as a clinical social worker for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and required a double anterior cervical fusion and discectomy (neck surgery) as a result. i was the 26th person this individual assaulted and he was known to be dangerous and unable to manage behaviorally without the strict security of a correctional setting. This patient was transferred from the prison state hospital to the DMH facility where I worked for forensic evaluation and state administrators refused to transfer him back even after he repeatedly assaulted staff and threatened to continue doing so. I was subsequently assaulted by another forensic patient three weeks later and told by HR that I was too pretty to work there and should cut my hair. Although I have empathy for all individuals struggling with mental illness this person should not have remained at the DMH facility because of his dangerous predatory behavior. In addition to schizophrenia he was diagnosed with anti social personality disorder and his behavior was understood not to be in the context of a psychotic episode or result of perceptual disturbances or delusions but in the context of anti social behavior and without any personal ownership or intent to change. The administration was aware of his dangerousness and elevated risk for continued assaults on employees but did not do anything to protect its staff. This was hypthosized to be, in part, the result of a recent lawsuit against the state where two mentally ill prisoners died in the prison state hospital and the state was found responsible and the families awarded a large settlement. Again, I empathize with the plight of all parties involved including hospital administration and state administrators but do not feel they were appropriately responding to the increase in assault against employees at state hospital as a result of the increase in forensic patients transferred form the prison system. State hospitals are not prisons and do not have security measures in place in appropriately manage these patients behaviorally.

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