Safety on the Job

How Managers Can Help Workers

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LLast February in Huntington, West Virginia, Rosemary Forney pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of social worker Brenda Lee Yeager. Yeager was conducting an in-home visit with Forney's infant daughter in July 2008, when Forney, allegedly with her boyfriend Stephen Foster Jr., attacked and suffocated her. Forney said later in court that she was scared her daughter would be taken away from her. Foster Jr. is charged with murder and is awaiting trial in May, and his father Stephen Foster Sr. is charged as a conspirator and accessory to the crime and goes on trial in April.

People working in the child welfare field are susceptible to unpredictable situations, especially when dealing with the relationships between children and their families. A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey showed that 48% more assaults happened to health and social services workers than those working in any other fields in 2000. In a more recent study, Robin Ringstad's article CPS: Client Violence and Client Victims published in Child Welfare last year, states that out of 37 CPS workers in a state county social services agency in California, 70% reported having been victims of psychological assaults--62% of which occurred in 2009 alone--and 22% experienced physical assaults, with 19% occurring in 2009.

Workplace violence is an unfortunate addition to the compounding challenges that social services agencies face. How do managers keep staff safe while facing mounting caseloads, immense budget cuts, and dwindling resources?

Keeping Workers Safe

Facts like those above have recently spurred legislative action. A year ago, Representative Dennis Moore (D-KS) reintroduced the Teri Zenner Social Worker Safety Act (H.R. 1490) to the 111th Congress. Initially introduced in 2007, the bill was named after social worker Teri Zenner, who was stabbed to death during an in-home visit in Kansas. The bill authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to award grants to states to enhance worker protection through trainings, GPS systems, and conflict prevention. It requires that $5 million will be allotted to the Secretary of Health and Human Services per year for the next five years to carry out the program, and will stipulate that each state pursuant of the grant program must match 50% of the funds. As of press time, it has 50 co-sponsors and is seeking further co-sponsorships in the House and a sponsor for a companion bill in the Senate.

CWLA acknowledges that legislation like H.R. 1490 is important in the safety of child welfare workers. CWLA recommended in its 2010 legislative agenda that Congress should allot funding to such programs that stress the importance of having up-to-date information and technology in every organization to keep workers safe.

Maximizing Resources

One organization that ensures caseworkers' safety is the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, a CWLA member agency. Last summer, a mother threatened to kill a staff person at their agency. The mother threatened the agency for months, and eventually the police issued a search warrant. When they entered her house, they found weapons and bullets with notes of the names of each staff person she planned to kill. She has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Incidents such as this have made DCF more proactive in establishing safety protocols. Their management maximizes its resources by creating effective policies and establishing internal and external committees that aim to keep their staff safe and well-informed of any potential dangers. Commissioner Angelo McClain explains that they have safety committees that meet monthly in all 29 area offices. He also says that they take part in the Massachusetts National Association of Social Workers' statewide safety committee that meets quarterly to "cross-fertilize" effective protocols and procedures.

Their safety committees' duties stretch beyond checking the proper use of IDs and making sure that certain areas are locked; the committee keeps track of any threats that caseworkers experience and records them into an incident reporting system. Management encourages staff to report any perceived or actual threats into the system so that they will have a better grasp of how to deal with certain families. Keeping records of known or perceived threats are important, McClain says, because it gives them the opportunity to improve and expand the knowledge of the people they serve. When reports are filed in the system, the safety committees devise a safety plan for the caseworker and the families that they visit. Management enacts the safety plans after careful deliberation, and offers services like employee assistance programs to the staff.

McClain says trainings and education are crucial to keeping workers safe. DCF equips staff with a personal safety handbook that talks about safety protocols, and a Core and Investigations training teaches them how to handle a potentially volatile situation. "Every time that we have an emergency report, we have a requirement that two workers go out," McClain says. In addition to this 'buddy system' for potentially violent visits, every social worker is equipped with a cell phone to ensure immediate communication with supervisors or the police. Communication between a caseworker and his respective supervisor plays a pivotal role in his safety, but on certain instances when there is a risk of violence, it is not enough that they have access to cell phones. In those rare circumstances, DCF management asks law enforcement to accompany the caseworkers on visits.

DCF is committed to safety in the office, too. They recently installed fortified glass in the reception areas in most field offices to increase worker security. They work closely with the police department, and have one officer in the reception area once a week; DCF has a "violent client" protocol where they schedule potentially violent clients at these times when an officer is onsite. They use an interview room with an extended view to others, with the entrance to the offices barred with a coded entry. Employees are also strongly advised to display their IDs at all times to guarantee their safety.

DCF maintains that the safety of their workers is their priority despite having suffered from budget cuts. In the past two years, McClain says that there has been an increased need for law enforcement presence. "We did that through budget implications," he says. McClain further stresses that budget constraints have not seeped into the safety committee's trainings and regular meetings.

Although there are new protocols, technology, and closer relationships with law enforcement, such unpredicted events can still unfold. McClain recalls an in-home visit last April to a mother where there were two social workers and four policemen. In half a minute, the mother delivered three to four blows to the social worker, even with the number of policemen right beside her. "What can we learn? Despite all of that, there's still an assault," he says. He maintains that it is "always a work in progress" for management to continuously improve safety measures.

Technology at Work

In Florida, CWLA member Our Kids of Miami Dade-Monroe is also stepping up its efforts to keep workers safe through the OK Connect program. With the use of 270 Samsung BlackJacks and Panasonic laptops that are all hooked online, management is well aware of where their workers are, and can better monitor a child's well-being.

While conducting in-home visits, Our Kids staff use their camera phones to take pictures of the children and immediately upload them onto Florida's statewide automatic child welfare information system (SACWIS). The device has a GPS tracker and stamps photographs with the times and dates they were taken. The new technology heightens the efficiency of visits, as social workers can have access to files and make updates to their cases while in the field. "The new technology also helps staff manage their time and plan their day better so they won't be forced to make those last-minute visits late into the evening to some of the worst neighborhoods," Frances Allegra, Executive Director of Our Kids, says.

At the start of this project, Our Kids envisioned a form of technology that would not only ensure the safety and well-being of the kids, but also the safety of their staff. They started with a focus group of caseworkers, initially "shadowing" them to see what a normal day was like, taking notes at 15-minute intervals to observe their routines, and in the end concluded that one of the issues they were facing was safety.

Along with new technology, however, came the slightest hesitance. "There was concern that there would be safety issues in some neighborhoods if they carry flashy equipment," Patricia Smith, Our Kids Chief Information Officer, says. To alleviate these concerns, they built in an alarm button that staff can utilize should a situation occur, which immediately alerts their supervisors and management. The GPS system pinpoints their exact locations.

In a staff survey conducted early this year, Our Kids found in their preliminary results that 60% of their staff never felt unsafe using their laptops, 70% never felt unsafe using their cell phones, and 70% never felt unsafe taking a photograph. While some staff felt unsafe some of the time with the new technology, the majority feel it greatly improves communication with their supervisors, especially during in-home visits. "Our project has taken that to the next level by using cutting-edge technology that's readily available and applying it in a situation that it's never been applied to before," Allegra says.

Even a Philadelphia agency has taken notice of Florida's new technology. CWLA member agency Philadelphia Department of Human Services is piloting 25 mobile devices similar to that of Florida's for caseworkers who are dealing with emergency situations with children under the age of 5. The piloting results will dictate their project's development.

Laws on Safety

Despite reports of occupational injuries in the child welfare field, the BLS' study on fatal occupational injuries shows that few assaults result in fatalities. The study showed that the educational, health, and social services sector has a minimal fatality rate as compared to other fields like protective service occupations, warehousing, logging, or manufacturing.

"A vast majority of the families you're serving want to be helped, and a vast majority welcome that intervention," Allegra states. As for those who do not want to be helped, the agency has created limits and drawn lines when dealing with these families. Aside from that, frontline workers are also equipped with the knowledge and the tools to prevent any violence that can potentially happen.

Dr. Marlene Huff, President of the Kentucky National Association of Social Workers, says that while "most parents want the best for their children," she has experienced threats and psychological assaults from clients during her 30-year career. She says that federal legislation, like the previously mentioned H.R. 1490, are crucial to the safety of those in the field.

The Boni Bill

States like Kentucky are also tackling this issue. Kentucky's bill is named after Boni Frederick, a 67-year-old social worker in Kentucky who was stabbed to death in 2006 while facilitating a visit between a mother and her infant who was in state custody at the time. The bill became law three years ago and stipulated that $6 million of budget funds be directed to the state agency where Frederick worked, CWLA member Department of Community Based Services, to enhance staff security. DCBS equipped staff with a web-based critical incident warning tracking system, a desktop alert system, access to criminal records, and cell phones. Boni Bill funding also hired more caseworkers, so that a single worker's caseload is not too much that it compromises health and safety.

One of these new additions, the desktop alert system, functions like an alarm button that alerts on some computers. If a worker is feeling threatened by a client he is interviewing in the office, he can send out a "red file," which will immediately alert the management.

Due to budget constraints, only a third of the $6 million was provided by lawmakers. As of press time, a new version of the Boni Bill was being produced in Kentucky's legislature. It does not tackle the same issues as the original did, exactly, but it still does address social workers' well-being. DCBS Commissioner Pat Wilson explains that "it is a new bill that seeks further new small appropriations for the department" which will focus on employee retention and recruitment, among other issues.

Huff says it's unfortunate that it required a fatality to ignite concern for an already decades-long issue. She says that it is a difficult time for child welfare because of budget cuts, but believes that DCBS is doing well in managing its resources despite the setbacks. Federal government, she says, should step up to protect its caseworkers. "Any legislation is a right step... It is the first step in a series of steps before we're actually safe," she says.

Aside from state and federal legislation, Huff says that it is management's duty to educate workers about how to spot signs of potentially violent clients, and that managers are responsible for ensuring a safe environment for their workers. Open communication lines between workers and managers are of paramount importance, she says, and play a key role to workers' safety.

Social workers like Yeager, Zenner, and Frederick represent the many workers in the child welfare field who put their lives on the line every day when doing their jobs. Their stories are a reminder of the importance of proper training, awareness, and management support and are a springboard from which management can learn to improve policies regarding safety.

Maria Sioco is an editorial intern at CWLA.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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