The Critical Need for Specialized Health and Safety Measures for Child Welfare Workers

By Scalera, Nicholas R. | Child Welfare, March 1995 | Go to article overview

The Critical Need for Specialized Health and Safety Measures for Child Welfare Workers


Scalera, Nicholas R., Child Welfare


Child welfare workers are facing a growing threat of physical violence in the course of carrying out their responsibilities to protect children and support families. This problem has a marked impact on the ability of both public and private child welfare agencies to provide services to the children and adults who need them most. Reports in the press and the experiences of our own workers have impressed upon us the nature and extent of this threat, and, in response, the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) has undertaken a set of concrete measures to enhance the health and safety of our field staff.

In November 1992, a New York Times article entitled "Social Workers: Targets in a Violent Society" detailed the issue of violence that confronts child welfare workers today [Dillon 1992]. The article described a number of serious incidents in which social workers were either killed or critically injured. Over the past several years, at least eight child welfare workers have been slain nationwide, and hundreds of others have been assaulted. Assaults range from verbal threats and intimidation to physical beatings. Our staff members have been directly affected by this disturbing phenomenon. When these incidents occur, they are of grave concern to the affected workers and should be of equally grave concern to all of us in the child welfare field.

From July 1, 1992, to June 30, 1993, 25 incidents occurred in which DYFS employees were the victims of physical and verbal assaults. Our workers have been threatened with knives and have had scissors thrown at them. They have been punched and kicked by clients. Hot water has been thrown at them and they have had their hands smashed in doors. Ten of the incidents required some type of police involvement. All the worker victims sustained some degree of emotional strain. Many endured serious psychological reactions. Eleven of these incidents required our workers to seek medical attention. A total of 70 worker-days was lost in that year as a result of these assaults. But this scarcely measures the psychological and emotional price that our workers pay--both as victims and coworkers--when these traumatic situations happen.

In some instances, the threat of violence--although never fulfilled--can be just as devastating to the staff as an actual assault. In January 1994, an anonymous caller to a police department in Morris County left a taped message alleging he had personnel information on every worker in our Morris District Office and warning that attempts on the lives of the staff members would be made within the next 72 hours. We acted swiftly to secure the support of the local police, state police, Human Services Department police, and the county prosecutor's office. Immediate security measures were put in place, and we devised long-term improvements in security. Although the threat was never carried out, the staff members and their families were terrified and traumatized long beyond the three-day period of the threatened assassinations, because no one can know whether a threatening caller is a sociopath determined to act or a prankster.

The New York Times article also observed that a majority of the incidents that resulted in the death of social workers occurred in rural or suburban settings, as opposed to urban environments. According to the 1991 New Jersey Uniform Crime Report, violent crime in general increased significantly throughout the state, affecting urban, suburban, and rural communities between 1987 and 1991 [State of New Jersey Division of State Police 1992]. During this five-year period, the number of violent crimes in urban areas increased by 19% and suburban neighborhoods experienced a nearly identical 17% increase. The largest increase, however--21%--was observed in rural communities. These findings clearly demonstrate why it is wrong to limit our concern about worker safety to urban communities. Child welfare and social service workers in all settings must be given protection from the threat of physical harm. …

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