Monday, January 01, 2007

Social worker's death was 'just a matter of time'

Social services aide's slaying raises alarms -
State workers realize the danger inherent in home visits
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 18, 2006, pg. A1.

State social worker Patricia Pregliasco warned her supervisors back in March that it was just a matter of time before a fellow employee would be killed in the line of duty.

Yesterday, Pregliasco said, "my heart dropped to my feet" when she heard that a social services aide for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services was slain while supervising a visit between a foster child and his biological mother in Western Kentucky.

"We go knocking on doors blindly. It's a roll of the dice," said Pregliasco, a Jefferson County state worker who was reprimanded in March after she e-mailed fellow workers about an incident in which someone shot at child protection workers in Perry County.

Pregliasco has contended for months that the Cabinet does not track threats and violence as well as it could. Yesterday, she said that workers and aides should refuse to go on home visits until the Cabinet takes increased steps to ensure their safety.

Cabinet officials and counselors were dispatched yesterday to Union County, where the aide was based, and to other parts of the state to reassure the 4,700 employees of the Department for Community Based Services who are charged with child protection in Kentucky.

Cabinet Secretary Mark D. Birdwhistell said he was emphasizing to workers and aides that they could ask for other staff members to accompany them on home visits, could call law enforcement for help anytime they were making a visit or could cancel a home visit if they felt threatened in any way. Birdwhistell said Cabinet policy does not require employees to take a second official with them into homes.

Search continues

By late afternoon yesterday, police in Henderson were still searching for a missing 10-month-old boy after the state social services aide he was with was found dead Monday in his biological mother's Western Kentucky home. The child's mother and the mother's boyfriend also were missing, as was the aide's car, Sgt. Dwight Duncan of the Henderson Police Department said.

Police went to Renee Terrell's home and found Boni Frederick, 67, of Morganfield at about 4:30 p.m. CDT. Frederick had worked for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services for 15 years. Her job included supervising visits between foster children and their biological parents and taking foster children to medical appointments, Birdwhistell said.

"She made the ultimate sacrifice in that she put her life at risk for the safety of the child," Birdwhistell said. The last time a child protection worker was slain in Kentucky was in 1987 when Paul Grannis died of a gunshot wound in Fleming County, Birdwhistell said.

An Amber Alert was issued Monday night for the baby, Saige Terrell. Police said he was thought to be with his mother, Renee Terrell, 33, of Henderson, and her boyfriend, Christopher Wayne Luttrell, 23.

Henderson police were called when the social worker failed to return to work Monday after taking the baby, who was in state custody, for a visit with the mother, Duncan said.

Duncan said Frederick was cut and beaten. Neighbors have said Renee Terrell was upset because she had recently heard that the child was going to be adopted. Neighbors said Terrell had at least three other children; she had custody of none of them.

She was fighting to get Saige back, neighbor Mindy Gray said in a phone interview.

Duncan said Terrell told acquaintances she was fleeing with the baby to Mexico. Terrell has a history of abuse charges against children, including charges of assault and endangering the welfare of a minor, police said. The child had been taken from his mother when he was 13 days old because of neglect.

"It's a dangerous job anytime you're taking someone's child away from their parents," Duncan said. "You know how protective parents can be."

Duncan said that since the killing, Frederick's credit card has been used in Smithboro, Ill., a town not far from St. Louis, Missouri.

Luttrell has separate burglary charges in Jefferson County and has a warrant for parole violation, police said.

Cabinet officials would not provide any details about the child's history in state foster care, citing confidentiality laws. Detective Ron Adams said he did not know the extent of the child's developmental delays; Adams said Luttrell was not the baby's father.

The slaying focused attention on the risks social workers can face on a daily basis.

Social workers' options

In addition to giving employees the option of canceling home visits and taking law enforcement officials with them, Birdwhistell said, the Cabinet has funding to expand a pilot program in which all workers will eventually have a laptop and a cell phone so they can more quickly summon help.

Pregliasco said those tools should also be given to aides in the same position as Frederick.

She also said that workers should have criminal histories at their fingertips instead of having to wait several hours for information.

Pregliasco said violent incidents are becoming routine for Cabinet employees. Just this week in Jefferson County, she said, a foster child pulled a gun on a worker. Also, police had to be called to Cabinet offices in Jefferson County twice to calm irate biological family members.

Birdwhistell said the Cabinet would work aggressively to improve safety conditions for employees, and that Monday's tragedy could result in more changes. Policies and training currently address threats of violence, he said.

Telling parents they are being investigated for child abuse or neglect makes for an emotionally charged scene, said Jennifer Hall, an associate director at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work's Training Resource Center.

If domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty or mental health issues are part of the equation or if removing the child is necessary, "You are going into a loaded situation."

"Kentucky has the right safeguards as much as any state could," Hall said.

"Social workers are trained to assess situations, but we are not fortune tellers," she said. "You can't predict what someone's breaking point is."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Social workers report assaults, threats on the job
Job-related violence against social workers has been a national concern since 2004, when a Kansas worker was slain on the job.

The National Association of Social Workers reports that, among members of the Child Welfare Specialty Practice Section, 19 percent had been victims of violence and 63 percent had been threatened at some point in their careers. A 1999 study by the University of Michigan found that, of 1,600 social workers, 3 percent had been assaulted by a client and 23 percent had been threatened with assault.

One in four said they had a colleague who had been assaulted by a client.

After the death of the Kansas worker, caseworkers there were given electronic calendars and tracking devices so supervisors can check in with them during home visits. Workers also may decline to visit a home if they feel threatened and may have greater access to clients' medical histories and backgrounds. Employees have received self-defense training and attended seminars on how to deal with potentially violent clients.

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