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Winter 2024 Issue

Practice Matters: Social Worker Safety
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 1 P. 26

Social workers deal with safety concerns every day. What’s being done about them?

Social workers spend a great deal of time thinking, if not worrying, about the safety of their clients. Many interventions, programs, and resources are designed to help individuals, families, and communities find and develop ways to live, at the very least, more safely. It’s a consistent focus for social workers.

However, that focus does not appear to regularly extend to the social workers themselves. They face numerous risks at work, including violence and threats of violence, exposure to illnesses, and being stranded in a rural area with a broken-down vehicle and no cell service. Being or feeling unsafe is not a rarity for social workers, and yet safety historically has been discussed sparingly within the profession. Trainings vary from organization to organization, and the topic is most likely to be addressed at a larger level only when tragedy occurs.

“I think for a long time, the issue of client violence and social worker safety was the ‘elephant in the room,’” says Christina E. Newhill, PhD, LCSW, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. “Everyone knew it was a problem, but we were hesitant to discuss it, fearing that acknowledging safety as an issue for social work would discourage people from entering the field.”

But, in fact, talking about social worker safety—allowing new and seasoned social workers to be transparent about their concerns and prepared for a variety of eventualities—will help keep social workers safer and perhaps keep them in the profession longer.

“We talk a lot about burnout,” says Becky Fast, MPA, MSW, executive director of the Kansas Chapter of NASW. But, she notes, many social workers leave positions because they don’t feel like they have backup. They don’t have the support they need, and their personal safety feels unattended. “Social workers leave jobs where they feel more at risk.”

Safety Concerns
The dangers social workers face throughout their careers vary. The risks that come to mind first—in today’s world especially—are those present for most professionals: exposure to illness and gun violence.

“When we do bring up [safety] now, everybody either assumes that we’re talking about active shooters or COVID-19,” says Wanda Anderson, MSW, LCSW, assistant director of the MSWO program and a clinical professor at the University of New England’s College of Professional Studies, UNE Online. And those are real dangers. ABC News reported at least 565 mass shootings in the United States in 2023 as of October 26. A mass shooting is defined by the FBI as a killing or attempted killing with a firearm in a populated area. Many of these shootings occur in places of work.

However, those present dangers are not the only incidents that affect social workers. Violence is a real threat to social workers both for those working primarily in office spaces and in the community.

“Social workers experience safety threats from clients and their family members, including attempted assaults, actual assaults, threats of harm, verbal abuse, property damage, stalking, and cyberbullying,” Newhill says. “Threats are the most common, and in my 1994 study of client violence toward social workers, involving an anonymous survey of 1,600 NASW members with 1,129 responses received, 58% of the social work respondents had experienced at least one incident of client violence (defined as attempted assaults, actual assaults, threats, and property damage) at some point in their careers, and among those, 50% had experienced threats.”

Safety concerns also arise due to aspects of the work, such as scheduling. Many social workers maintain unique working hours due to the availability of clients. It’s not uncommon for visits to occur in the evenings or early in the mornings. When social workers are traveling outside of the standard nine-to-five workday, supervisors and colleagues may be less aware of the social workers’ location and, in some areas, less able to reach them. Rural areas, in particular, often lack consistent internet and cellular service.

Anderson recalls a student several years ago whose car broke down after a home visit in a rural area, for example. It was after hours, and no one knew where the student was. This could have been a very dangerous situation, and it prompted discussion and action at the school.

Addressing the Issue
Schools are one of the places where safety is increasingly addressed, with social work students and organizations offering internships. At the University of New England, Anderson says, “We developed a safety agreement. Every student in their field practicum needs to take it to their agency and have their agency sign off on it.” When this practice first started, Anderson adds, many of the agencies did not have safety plans or protocols in place, so the school encouraged the organizations to work with students to help develop them.

Newhill also incorporates the topic into her students’ education. “Discussion of safety is meant to empower students, not scare them,” she says. “We include content on safety in our generalist classes when students are in their first-year field placements, and it is part of training and requirements for field instructors. I always devote a full session to risk assessment and safety in my MSW mental health classes.”

Similarly, many organizations have begun increasing focus on safety, offering trainings and protocols on the topic for their social workers. However, Anderson notes that many of the trainings she leads are one-time opportunities at an agency. It’s not education that has been woven into the ongoing training or onboarding plans at many organizations.

Action has also been taken at larger levels, though primarily state to state. For example, in Kansas, social workers are required to complete six hours of safety training as a part of the continuing education credits needed for licensure. This requirement was enacted after the murder of social worker Teri Zenner in 2004. Zenner’s husband pushed for the requirement, which was also supported by the Kansas Chapter of NASW.

Additionally, NASW (national) released a booklet in 2013 on social worker safety that established guidelines for the profession. It says, “These guidelines are important to the retention and recruitment of a professional social work force. Moreover, NASW guidelines may be a helpful resource to communities; private and public agencies; and local, state, and federal policymakers invested in creating a safer work environment for social workers.”

And, Fast says, “NASW at a federal level has worked on funding for social work violence prevention.”

Barriers to Improvement
Even with the aforementioned changes and commitments to increased safety, social work as a profession and the organizations that employ social workers still face barriers to decreasing risk.

“I think the biggest issues is the money,” Anderson says. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if money wasn’t an issue.” Agencies need to be able to bill for services and thus need to provide services, even if that means social workers must complete home visits at off hours in remote locations or take other similar, if not worse, risks. Organizations need to assess protocols and policies, adjusting them to prioritize safety with service. This could mean sending out teams as opposed to individuals.

Fast adds that another important aspect of safety that needs to be addressed involves manageable caseloads. “We need to do more for caseloads,” she says. “When you have increased caseloads, you have less supervisory support and less supervisor direction to assist you with families that have high needs.” Many caseworkers are new professionals who may not have noticed a red flag in terms of safety that a supervisor might have. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Fast says.

Barriers, however, do not mean that there’s no room for hope. The more safety among social workers is discussed and analyzed, the more likely these obstacles will lessen. Anderson and Fast see the most opportunity for change within the next generation of social workers.

“The new generation of social workers are more willing to speak up,” Fast says. “They’ve grown up in a generation of preparing to prevent and avoid violence or intimidation at a personal and professional level.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.