Magazine article Policy & Practice

Human Service Worker Safety: A View from the Top

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Human Service Worker Safety: A View from the Top

Article excerpt

We all see our share of crises as state commissioners, Cabinet secretaries and county social service directors. We face challenges ("911's") ranging from child fatalities to day-today opportunities ("411's") that consume our time and resources. Rarely is there time to proactively plan. Imagine for a moment how you might respond as a human service leader when you learn that one of your front-line workers has been murdered while doing nothing more than the job he/she was paid to do.

As human service administrators we are constantly engaged in various stages of systems reform. We are in a continual quest for improved outcomes for children, youth and families. We spend hours in meetings and planning activities to ensure the safety and well-being of children and vulnerable adults; but do we sometimes, even frequently, overlook the safety of our workers?

Daily, each of us, without hesitation, asks our workers to fulfill the mission of protecting children and helping needy citizens with temporary health care, shelter and food assistance, and they deliver. We ask them to follow our plans to move from "good to great," and they endure the necessary changes and respond. But do we supply them with the resources that improve the "culture of safety" within local offices? Do we know what they are? Have we supplied them with the necessary training they need to respond to clients' verbal and physical threats? For many of us, the answer is "no."

On Oct. 16, 2006, a social service aide named Boni Frederick was slain while making a home visit in Kentucky. The days that followed required an immediate, direct and tangible response from the Cabinet leadership. Boni was like the 4,700 other dedicated Kentucky state employees charged with delivering protective and preventive services or helping families with temporary assistance. She was one of our heroes, but like Paul Grannis, who was murdered in similar circumstances 20 years before, she died while performing her duties. Unfortunately, almost every state has a Boni and a Paul; perhaps our greatest legacy to our successors will be to ensure that there is never another Boni and Paul under our watch. The legacy is within our grasp.

We must face the realities before us. Social service work, dealing with drug-affected families and co-occurring mental health disorders, is tough work. The loss of a worker's life brings it close to home. However, the threat of a similar situation occurring in one of our agencies should spur each one of us to look carefully and responsibly at the issues of front-line safety. We need action plans that address the issue and make a difference without diminishing the ability of our staff to conduct their work with those they serve. The decisions they face with families are complex, clinical and complicated. At times they are faced with the monumental decisions of removing children from their birth parent. They see conditions within client homes that would scare many of us.... every day. They work in a system that doesn't always work the way they want. Yet they need an environment that recognizes the importance of their personal safety in order for them to go forth and serve the vulnerable citizens and in so doing fulfill the mission of the agency.

Creating the Culture Of Safety

Resources in the area of training, technology, infrastructure improvements and improved communication methods are needed. Kentucky developed an incident reporting system that replaced the outdated paper method of recording incidents and verbal or physical threats of violence by clients. The new system enables staff at all levels to review the incident and diagnose the leading causes. Questions can now be asked such as "Was it preventable? Did we have information on this client that was needed prior to the threat or physical attack? What needs to be changed so that it doesn't happen again?" Active and tangible responsive solutions can now be implemented in a timely manner. …

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