Violence against Workers: A Shortcoming in Public Human Services

By Fox, Stephen R.; Harmon, Donna | Policy & Practice, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Violence against Workers: A Shortcoming in Public Human Services


Fox, Stephen R., Harmon, Donna, Policy & Practice


It was just another day doing her job helping children. Little did Boni Frederick know that this would be her last day on earth. On the afternoon of Oct. 16, 2006, while overseeing a home visit between a mother and her infant, Boni was beaten to death by the child's mother and her boyfriend.

Terri Zenner, a mental health worker in Kansas, had been working for an extended period with a young man with severe mental health issues. This was to be just like any other visit. Unfortunately it was not. She was found murdered by the man.

The three public human service workers in South Carolina were going through their office routines that day. There was nothing out of the ordinary until the routine was shattered by the sound of gun fire. The three were killed by an irate client.

How many other human service workers have given the ultimate sacrifice in carrying out their duties? One of the tragedies of this issue is that we do not know. There is no national repository of data about violence against human service workers. There is little research on the issue and only a handful of people in the nation have any knowledge about the trauma associated with this violence. Yet this issue touches on the single most overwhelming, deeply personal tragedy of life - death through violence. In this case, the violence includes the killing of those who serve by those who are served.

What Is Known

While research is limited, what exists clearly unmasks the significance of the problem. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in a 2004 report on workplace violence, points out the 48 percent of all non-fatal violence against all workers in the United States occurs in the field of social services and mental health. A study in one state indicates that anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of public human service workers experienced threats, damaged property and physical attacks during their career. The lack of any nationwide mandatory reporting system leads those with knowledge of the issue to suspect that the incidents are underreported.

These statistics are not surprising to the front-line staff in human services, particularly in public child welfare services. Workers for decades have experienced these frightening events almost daily. A mandatory reporting system of incidents of violence or general safety was implemented in Kentucky after the death of Boni Frederick. In the past eight months, the automated system has recorded over 676 reports with 259 of these being threats and 52 reports of actual physical violence.

System Failure

Why has the issue of human service worker safety been (for all practical purposes) ignored for the past four decades? Kentucky's University Training Consortium had the privilege of staffing and facilitating the extensive programmatic and policy response to the death of Boni Frederick with its partner, the Department for Community Based Services. An electronic survey of all 5,000 agency staff identified a number of reasons for this shortcoming. First, there has existed for decades an "it is just part of the job" response to violence or threatened violence. When asked about a particular safety issue or incident, most workers will respond that "it is just part of the job - it comes with the territory." It is true that threats and actual violence can be expected in the human service field. Human service workers are frequently called "baby snatchers" or "insensitive bureaucrats" who refuse to give financial aid or food benefits to applicants. These workers intervene in the most private, sensitive and sacred areas of human existence. Thus, it is neither unthinkable nor unrealistic to believe that there will be threats and the possibility of violence. However, the "it is just part of the job" attitude has become so pervasive and ingrained in the culture of public human services that potentially violent acts are taken for granted. Such attitudes create environments that are ripe for missed signals of potential violence. …

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