Sunday, May 20, 2007

Threats, assaults and disorderly conduct against social workers

System helps social workers report dangers
Still more to do, study group told
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, May 10, 2007, pg. B1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — The threat was alarming — a father, angry that his children had been removed by child welfare officials, promised to kill the family caring for them and cut the throat of the social worker investigating his case.

"It's a common occurrence," said Joel Griffith, a regional supervisor who added that the threat occurred in his Northern Kentucky region. "It's a shocking occurrence."

But a new statewide computer system to report and track such incidents is resulting in swifter action against people who make threats, state officials yesterday told a group of social workers and others studying safety.

Formed after last October's murder of Western Kentucky social service aide Boni Frederick, the group will continue its work this year and held its first meeting since the General Assembly in March passed legislation named after Frederick. The Boni law is aimed at upgrading safety and getting more frontline social workers on the job.

Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, told the group that the bill is a start and the study group's job is to come up with further recommendations for lawmakers in 2008.

"We really have to get down to work and prepare for the '08 session," he said.

The cabinet already has enacted some changes, including the "Critical Incident Reporting System," a computer-based effort that allows workers to report threats, attacks or other security concerns to Frankfort using a Web site that immediately e-mails the report to supervisors in Frankfort and in the field.

Previously workers had to fill out a written report and fax or mail it to Frankfort.

Some social workers at yesterday's meeting said the reporting system is one of the most significant improvements since Frederick's death.

"I think it's going to be a way to help us," said Shenise Mack, a Jefferson County social worker.

"That to me is tremendous progress," said Jennifer Williams, who also works in Jefferson County.

Both said threats and attacks are an on going problem for social workers who often deal with hostile and angry adults who sometimes have mental health or substance-abuse problems.

Since the computer-based system began in November, 246 incidents have been reported, according to a report provided to the work group yesterday. In 33 of those cases, law enforcement or emergency medical officials were notified, it said.

The incidents included threats, assaults and disorderly conduct. Thirteen cases resulted in criminal charges, including the Northern Kentucky man who threatened to kill the social worker and family caring for his children.

Tom Emberton Jr., Kentucky's undersecretary for child and family services, said yesterday the system allows the state to act swiftly on such reports and compile a database to track trends and identify areas of particular concern.

Bruce Linder, who oversees the state's nine social service regions, said he gets the reports immediately by e-mail, which allows him to keep up with threats or attacks on social workers and make sure they are being handled properly by regional supervisors.

"It really has sped up the process," he said.

Griffith said he thinks workers are more likely to fill out the online reports — partly because its faster and easier — and also because, following Frederick's death, state officials repeatedly reminded workers to report security concerns. As a result, Griffith believes more workers are reporting threats or other incidents they might previously have shrugged off as part of the job.

"I know I'm getting lots more of the reports," he said.

The group also discussed resources for social work, how to get more workers on the job, how to make offices safer, how to get faster criminal background checks on clients before they visit the home and ways to improve safety when workers make home visits.

Frederick was fatally beaten and stabbed in Henderson when she took an infant for what was to be a final home visit with his mother. The state recently had moved to sever her parental rights and place the child for adoption.

The mother and her boyfriend have been charged with Frederick's murder.

Several workers said yesterday the state needs a protocol to assess an increased danger to the worker as circumstance of a case change with rules to back it up.

Griffith said he gets memos from workers who say they have been threatened and that they plan to hold the next meeting with the family in a state agency office instead of the home.

"I say OK, but there's no policy that says it's OK," Griffith said. - THERE SHOULD BE