Monday, January 01, 2007

Social work takes place in crisis situations, workers need additional protection

EDITORIAL: Kentucky must back its social workers
Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 27, 2006, pg. A6.

No one ever thought social work was a glamorous profession, but in the last month, Kentuckians have had to face up to how awful the job can be.

In October, a social service aide, Boni Frederick, was killed in Henderson when she took a 9-month-old boy on a court-ordered supervised visit with his mother.

Since that event and the cross-country search that followed, lawmakers and the Fletcher administration have been facing up to a few things, too.

One is that social workers, whose work by its nature centers on crisis situations, need additional protections.

Another is that more resources are going to be needed. Caseloads have gone up in the past few years, but the budget for caseworkers has not.

A meeting in Frankfort on this issue drew about 150 social workers. Apparently, they were relieved to have a forum to talk about their fears.

Their fears are valid. In their line of work, the possibility of physical or verbal assault is always present.

A study in Ontario, Canada, for example, showed that 88 percent of the social workers had been verbally harassed, 64 percent had been threatened with physical harm, 29 percent had been physically assaulted but not injured, and 8 percent had been physically injured.

In Montana, a similar survey showed that "each year, one of every 10 workers is pushed, shoved or hit by one or more agency clients." In Pennsylvania and California, 57 percent of social workers said they had experienced one or more types of client violence over their career.

The situation Boni Frederick walked into was unusual. As dangerous as social work can be, the number of social worker deaths is low.

But there are things the Governor and General Assembly must do to make the job safer.

The obvious ones include devising better ways to assess the risks to social workers (risk assessment now is mostly about the risks to clients), hire more social workers so they can appear in pairs during home visits, and invest in such communications equipment as two-way radios with panic buttons so the police can be alerted if a social worker gets trapped in a dangerous situation.

Kentucky social workers say that up to 80 percent of their cases involve adults with substance abuse problems or mental illness — or both. Combine that with the crises families are facing, such as termination of their parental rights, and it's obvious why this is such dangerous work.

Certainly, this will be a major issue when the General Assembly convenes in January. Actually, the safety of social workers has been a major issue nationally for a number of years

The commonwealth can't afford to put off confronting it any longer. After the murder of Boni Frederick, no one can claim to be unaware.


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