On the recent social service worker death in Massachusetts: Work to create a culture of safety

Last week, we received the horrible news that a young woman working in a community residence for people with mental illness had been murdered by a resident in that residence.  Click here or here for media coverage of this tragic event.  First and foremost, my heart and my condolences go out to her family.

This young woman was what we refer to in the social services field as a front-line worker – or a direct service worker.  Many of the master’s level students that I teach have worked – or currently work – in such capacities.  I am sure this is true of students in our undergraduate program as well.  I am concerned, however, about how this incident will impact people’s views about both people with mental illness – and direct care work with this population.

First, it would be awful for people with mental illness to become objects of suspicion or even fear.  Second, it would be equally awful for people to consider that work with this population of people is too dangerous (or for that matter – too dangerous to live near, a la the NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard phenomenon).
I have been alarmed over the last few days to hear my students and former students talking about this incident as if this is a common occurrence.  While this is a terrible tragedy, this horrific event is NOT par-for-the-course in social work practice.  In a recent survey of 44 social service agencies and organizations around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Dr. Jennifer Zelnick and I found that instances such as this one are by no means the norm.  This study found that among direct care social service workers, including those working in DMH settings in the community, only two percent (n=17 out of 727 total such incidents) of all non-restraint-related incidents involved a physical assault – with and without injury.
Now, in sharing this information, I do not want to contribute to the message I often hear in the field re: “we deal with tough stuff” – almost a macho message.  However, I don’t want to discount the real fear that is out there – regardless of the actual prevalence of client-social service worker incidents.  In the course of conducting focus group research last summer, I was astounded at the extent to which master’s level clinicians spoke about their fear of possible safety threats in the course of their work given the juxtaposition with their actual experience of such incidents (extremely low).  So, I just want to put the data out there.  I think that the best thing we can do is promote a culture of safety – through the provision of information.  One good place to start is the web page set up by the Task Force on Maximizing Social Worker Safety, part of the National Association of Social Workers’ Massachusetts Chapter.  To find that, click here…and an excerpt of the information provided there is pasted in here:
Recommendation on professional skills development related to risk assessment and safety promotion:

Practice skills associated with risk reduction and safety promotion

The NASW MA Chapter recommends that all social workers seek education and training in skills and knowledge associated with risk reduction and safety promotion.  Social Workers are encouraged to take continuing education classes on these topics and to advocate for training at their place of employment. Skills and knowledge for each of these areas should reflect both the general principles related to risk reduction and the needs of a specific field of practice or population area in which a social worker practices.  
Essential is knowledge and skills on the subjects of:
  1. risk assessment –  the clinical assessment of a client’s potential for violence
  2. safety planning –  procedures and activities related to risk reduction in delivery of client care including guidelines for transporting clients
  3. verbal de-escalation techniques –  clinical interventions used when working with an agitated client to defuse a potentially explosive situation
  4. non-violent self defense –  self defense devised for use by mental health professionals
Resources for Safety Skills