Keeping Ourselves Safe
In the Aftermath of Recent Attacks
Lynne Spevack, LCSW, Chairperson, Private Practitioners Committee
Many of us feel shaken by the news of the murder of Dr. Faughey and the serious injury of Dr. Shinbach, a psychologist and a psychiatrist who were attacked in their Upper East Side office on February 12, 2008. This incident calls our attention to the need to do what we can to assure our safety as we do our work, and in relation to some clients who may have a propensity to become violent. I want to recommend a couple of resources that I have found helpful on this topic.
I recommend that social workers read one or both of the following books:
Client Violence in Social Work Practice: Prevention, Intervention, and Research by Christina Newhill, Ph.D., LCSW, Guilford Press
Concise Guide to Assessment and Management of Violent Patients, second edition by Kenneth Tardiff M.D., M.P.H.
American Psychiatric Publishing www.appi.org
Both of these books provide practical information about how to assess the risk that a client will become violent and how to handle a violent or potentially violent client. Both websites provide a table of contents and other information, and Guilford’s website provides a sample chapter from Dr. Newhill’s book.
In recent years the social work profession has become increasingly attuned to assessing and addressing the dangers that our clients face, for example, in domestic violence situations. However, as a profession, we have continued to remain largely oblivious to the risks that we ourselves face in our professional lives. Historically, our profession has generally denied and minimized the problem of client violence, and signaled to trainees that the topic is taboo. On an individual level, this is a painful and confusing subject that many of us would prefer not to think about. In her book, Dr. Newhill points out that “few social workers enter the profession anticipating that they may become targets of violence from the very individuals they want to help.” The issue of client violence brings up many complicated feelings for us to grapple with.
However, the fact is that social workers in various work settings have been the victims of client violence, including threats, property damage, stalking, assaults, and, sometimes, murder. Facing this reality and educating ourselves before we find ourselves in such a situation can help us to minimize the danger. Although we can’t always predict or prevent the problem, we can better protect ourselves by learning more about what characterizes dangerous client behaviors and situations and how best to respond to these situations when they do occur.
In addition, agency administrators have a responsibility to address the issue of staff safety systemically, preventively, and routinely. Our agencies must, first of all, allow and promote discussion about safety concerns, rather than shaming staff and students who express fears about potentially dangerous situations. Staff members with particular concerns should be offered assistance, rather than left to manage the situation on their own; the problem of safety needs to be considered the responsibility of the entire organization, not an issue for the social worker to grapple with alone or privately with his or her supervisor. As with social workers in direct practice, agency administrators must preemptively address the issue of staff safety, developing policies and implementing safety measures before the next dangerous situation arises. Administrators should educate themselves and provide training to their staff about the subject, and should consider inviting speakers and consultants who have expertise on client violence to assist them in formulating appropriate policies and developing regular educational programs for staff and administrators. The safety of the entire staff, including support staff, must be considered and addressed. Finally, administrators need to maintain a focus on safety through the years, regularly and routinely educating and re-educating themselves and their staff and routinely re-evaluating and revising relevant policies and procedures.
As some of you know, I myself lost two colleagues in the early 1990s when a former client firebombed a Brooklyn outpatient clinic where I worked. In the midst of working hard to take care of your clients’ needs, I urge you to make time to take care of yourself.