Client Violence toward Social Workers: A Practice and Policy Concern for the 1990s

By Newhill, Christina E. | Social Work, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Client Violence toward Social Workers: A Practice and Policy Concern for the 1990s


Newhill, Christina E., Social Work


After police officers, social workers run the highest risk of work-related violence directed at them (Kipper, 1986). Because of the nature of social work, which often involves aspects of social control, some clients display hostility and violence. Furthermore, in some situations budget cuts and understaffing have led to increased vulnerability of social workers to violence (Hiratsuka, 1988; Petrie, Lawson, & Hollender, 1982; Schultz, 1987, 1989).

In the United States during the past five years, several social workers have been killed and scores more have been injured in the course of their work. Robbyn Panitch, a 26-year-old social worker in Los Angeles County, was stabbed to death by a client in her office at Santa Monica Mental Health Center (Simon, 1989). Panitch was talking to her fiance on the telephone when a client burst into her office and attacked her with a knife. Her fiance, hearing her screams over the phone, immediately called the employees at the front desk, who notified the police. By the time two male employees were able to disarm the client, Panitch had been stabbed 31 times in the face and neck. She died two hours later.

In Pittsburgh, 27-year-old Linda Rosen was shot and killed by a client in the psychiatric emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center (Hasch & Guggenheim, 1988). Rosen was interviewing the client when suddenly, without provocation, the client pulled out a gun and shot Rosen three times. In another case, a 32-year-old social worker suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body and her husband was killed after a former client set fire to their home (Sobel, 1982). A few months earlier the same client had assaulted the social worker with an ice axe and on another occasion had attempted to rape her. Convicted of multiple charges, the client was given the death penalty ("Death Penalty," 1990).

Few people enter the social work profession realizing that they may become the targets of violence from the individuals they want to help - their clients (Star, 1984). Anecdotal evidence and limited empirical data suggest that physical and emotional violence toward social workers is increasing in all settings (Dillon, 1992): "The professional mystique of selflessly providing service without resentment no longer describes the [current] environmental reality in which workers must function" (Schultz, 1987, p. 240).

Today, social workers handle frontline situations that previous generations of workers did not encounter (for example, increased violence attributed to female, elderly, and deinstitutionalized clients and new intervention roles in domestic violence situations, police-social worker teams, custody and divorce mediation, and emergency room work). Recognition that changes have occurred in U.S. social work practice has not been accompanied by systematic investigation of the implications of these changes. Although the subject of dangerousness has generated a plethora of literature in the past two decades, it has been primarily confined to addressing the appropriateness of the dangerousness standard for involuntary civil commitment and exploring the ability of clinicians to predict violent behavior (Newhill, 1992). Few studies have addressed the danger posed by clients to health care professionals or specifically violence against social workers. The lack of attention to this issue suggests that social workers may be neither adequately informed about the potential hazards they face in their day-to-day work nor systematically trained to manage these risks.

Literature Review

U.S. Studies

The literature addressing client violence toward human services professionals in the United States has generally addressed professional groups other than social work, including psychiatrists (Dubin, 1986; Madden, Lion, & Penna, 1976; Ruben, Wolkon, & Yamamoto, 1980) and hospital nursing staff (Lanza, 1983; Levy & Hartocollis, 1976; Lion, Snyder, & Merrill, 1981). …

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