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Assaulted by a Client — A Social Worker’s Journey of Recovery

By Kelly Waite, MSW, LCSWA

Like most new social workers, I entered the field with drive and passion to change the world and advocate for a better quality of life for the millions of people experiencing poverty, oppression, and other social problems. One of my greatest accomplishments was the day I received my master’s degree, followed by a provisional license to practice in North Carolina. I was not new to the behavioral health field. As an Army spouse, I was fortunate to gain rewarding experience working with military families in areas of victim advocacy, parenting skills programs, and family readiness groups while serving our soldiers with traumatic brain injury and substance abuse. After a military move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I was eager to expand my experience and try something new.

I accepted a position as a substance abuse specialist on an assertive community treatment (ACT) team providing therapy and substance abuse treatment to individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. ACT teams have expanded rapidly across the nation in recent years as a form of support for those at risk for inpatient hospitalization who have not succeeded with traditional outpatient therapy. This is a community-based program in which team members meet with clients at their home, a public library, a homeless shelter, a park, or other community locations. I was excited to begin my work with this population, but ignorant of the challenges that would come and eventually lead me to the other side of the desk.

Part of the Job, Taking Risks
In January 2014, I began intensive work with a male client who resisted our services as evidenced by verbal aggression exhibited on multiple occasions. I requested support during supervision, citing safety concerns. I was advised to continue my efforts to engage in the community, but not to go alone. I arrived at the client’s home for a routine, scheduled session. As recommended, a peer came along and I also arranged for the client’s mother to attend. Initially, the session was uneventful but that quickly changed throughout the hour as I tried to de-escalate the client who was increasingly exhibiting aggressive behaviors. I knew I was in trouble when the client anchored himself in front of his door, refusing to let us leave his home. After 15 minutes, I successfully redirected him away from the door and was able to make my escape, but I did not make it safely to my car. The client rushed at me from behind and forcefully shoved me off a deck three to five feet high. I landed 10 feet away face down in the dirt. Assisted by my peer, I made it to the car and we drove away as the client chased us down the road. Later, I was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder, torn labrum, a fracture of my humeral head, and multiple bumps and bruises. The following months took me on a journey mixed with pain and emotion as I struggled through the medical, psychological, and legal aspects of being a victim of assault.

Medically, I endured nearly six months of rigorous, unpleasant physical therapy. Anyone going through physical therapy can tell you how therapists will twist and pull and make you move your injured body parts until your eyes are brimming with tears. Yes, it was quite painful and I spent my days managing pain with the help of narcotics and an adoring husband who took responsibility for the activities of daily living I could not complete. In the end, physical therapy did not heal all wounds, and my surgeon informed me that I would be given a permanent impairment rating. He would also perform an arthroscopy to see if he could repair some internal damage, but could not make any promises; ultimately, I might have lasting effects. This was tough news to hear considering that I am an avid equestrian living on a horse farm. Would I ever be able to independently perform my ultimate self-care hobby again? While focus was placed on my physical injuries for several months, these questions and other emotions were beginning to weigh me down heavily as I fought to maintain strength and control over my life. After all, I am a social worker and we are expected to be sound in body and mind to come to the aid of others, right? Perhaps it’s time to remind the world that social workers are people too, and the human factor exists in all of us.

Testing the Waters
A few months after the assault, I returned to work on light duty. Surprise was everywhere. Even my employer did not expect me to return to the job at which I had been violently attacked. But I had promised myself that I would leave the agency on my own terms, when I am ready, not because I was bullied or forced out by a client. I could not give away that kind of power. Initially, I worked in the office performing administrative functions. Eventually, I returned to the field to see clients. Immediately, I knew that something was wrong. I had been experiencing hypervigilance, startle response, and nightmares since the injury. I became very alert to locking my doors at all times and watching my surroundings. But I really believed I could work through it and push it aside. When I went to see a client for the first time, I froze. I literally hid behind my peer on the front porch. I felt judgmental and apathetic. I generalized my clients as being dangerous, and I was terrified. This was not the person that I knew so well. Where had my core values gone? Where was my belief in positive intent? I was later diagnosed with PTSD and began treatment in therapy. What a different place to be—on the other side. Now I was the client crying about life and not wanting to get out of bed. By August, I was feeling disconnected from my family, my passions, and my team at work. It didn’t help that my employer decided that my team was suffering from my extended absence, so I was terminated from my position so they could hire a replacement. I was transferred to a nonclinical position performing quality management chart reviews. It was hard enough getting out of bed to go to a career that I normally love, but now I have to get out of bed to go to a job outside my career path? So my depression grew and came to consume every ounce of my reality. No longer could I see the good or the glass half full. It was always empty.

Personal Advocacy
On the legal side, the client was arrested and charged with a class 1A misdemeanor: assault on a female. Imagine my surprise to learn that you can permanently injure someone and only be charged with a misdemeanor. One of the many skills that a social worker is good at is research. So I began researching North Carolina law, and I quickly found my loophole. Permanent impairments and surgery both qualify for upgrades to felony assaults. I made contact with the major crimes department of the sheriff’s office and advocated my case. Their job was to gather and review the evidence I had indicated existed. Unfortunately, the system does not run quickly and the defendant was still in jail on misdemeanor charges waiting to plead guilty before they could be upgraded. I appeared in court on four separate occasions to advocate for the continued hold of the defendant pending conclusion of the major crimes investigation. Not once was I given any form of victim support as required by the Victims Right’s Act. I am not sure why it became the victim’s responsibility to cross-talk with the district attorney’s office, but this was the only reason the defendant remained in jail for six months. After my weekly phone calls to the major crimes department and complaints to its supervisors, the assailant was charged with felony assault. This was a pivotal moment in my recovery. I began to feel a renewed sense of strength and commitment. Advocating for my personal right to justice was a solid reminder of the amazing foundation our country was built on. For me, true therapy was finding my voice again and reaffirming my beliefs and core values.

As I continue to heal, I am slowly learning that while I may have been victimized, I do not have to be a victim forever. And I don’t have to be afraid to seek the help and support to recover from such a terrifying ordeal. Six months ago, I thought I would never return to the field. Today, I feel the hope of a new beginning that will guide my practice and enhance awareness of the safety issues often faced by human service workers. My only hope is that others will find my personal journey useful and inspiring as we continue to serve our clients.

— Kelly Waite, MSW, LCSWA, worked as a clinician/substance abuse specialist on an assertive community treatment team in Fayetteville, North Carolina, through August 2014. She currently plans to resume work with military families of the Fort Bragg community with an eventual goal of performing equine-assisted psychotherapy in a private practice setting.