Famed social worker Frances Perkins once said, “The people are what matter to government and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” Today’s social workers still share Perkins’ same drive for justice for society’s most vulnerable people. But who is ensuring that social workers themselves are guaranteed quality of life?
As essential frontline workers, social workers directly interact with individuals in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, mental health centers, prisons, and private homes.
Oftentimes, their clients are down on their luck, grappling with mental health conditions, unemployment, abuse, substance use disorder, or a combination of different variables.
It’s not uncommon for social workers to find themselves in unsafe situations. In fact, they are one of the most vulnerable professions across industries in terms of workplace violence. But little has been done to prevent incidents—or even to count them—even though social workers have encountered dangerous situations with little preparation or protection since the profession’s inception.
“I’ve been impacted by things regarding safety, personally … and it’s a real issue,” says Kiva Harper, associate professor of practice in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). According to Harper, social workers have an unspoken expectation to readily accept poor working conditions, have a self-sacrificing attitude, and generally, put up with threats to their safety under the guise of duty and bravery.
“With social workers, it’s almost just expected that because we help people, we have to also suffer in order to help,” says Harper. “We want to do work that we love and find fulfilling, [but] that doesn’t have to come with poverty and disrespect and poor working conditions.”
This societal attitude breeds a lack of awareness of the violence and poor working conditions that social workers face. More than half of respondents of a 2022 survey on U.S. social workers said they felt a lack of professional visibility in the workplace by colleagues and organizational leadership, and in organizational policies.
Throughout her career as a social worker, Harper has found herself in several different situations where she has felt unsafe with no clear avenue or protocol for how to act and so have many of her peers. In some cases, these situations end tragically.
Jacqueline Poquaa, one of Harper’s previous students, was the victim of a fatal shooting at Methodist Dallas Medical Center in October 2022. Poquaa, who just graduated with a master’s degree in social work from UTA in 2019, was 45 years old when she and a nurse were both gunned down by a patient’s boyfriend.
Just in the past year, there have been several other shocking headlines from news outlets across the U.S. about horrific attacks on social workers.
- In early 2023, a social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services was battered and sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old foster boy in Los Angeles.
- In April, Leah Rosin-Pritchard, a social worker at the Vermont homeless shelter where she worked as a facility coordinator, was killed with an ax. She had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work from Rhode Island College only three years earlier.
- In September, an unnamed social worker was stabbed four times in San Francisco at a supportive housing site. The perpetrator fled the scene but was soon apprehended. Fortunately, the unnamed employee survived.
Social workers like Harper are frustrated with the lack of outrage and action when it comes to the violence they face. So, why is it happening, why is it tolerated, and what can be done to promote change?
Meet the Expert
Kiva Harper, LCSW-S is an associate professor of practice of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington. In addition to being an educator, she is a thought leader, trauma expert, therapist, and supervisor in the field. Her areas of specialty include trauma, military social work, mental health, domestic violence, substance use, and grief. She is also the owner of Harper Counseling and Consulting Services in Arlington, where she provides therapy to survivors of trauma and traumatic grief.
A Gap in Recent Data
For starters, data on violence against social workers is outdated and fragmented, making it difficult to understand and report on the true scope of the problem. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) still references its 2004 national study which found that 44 percent of social workers experience personal safety issues at work. This study turned 20 this year, so it’s hard to say whether these rates are still representative of the experience of today’s social workers.
Another commonly referenced statistic comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), which reported that health and social service workers were nearly five times as likely to suffer a serious workplace violence injury than workers in other sectors. While somewhat illuminating and more recent, this statistic lumps social workers in with healthcare workers, glossing over the fact that social workers can be employed in a multitude of other settings outside of hospitals.
Often, as this Harvard Gazette article points out, studies like these have the unintended side effect of contributing to social workers’ invisibility in health systems—and arguably, in society at large.
As a result, the current rate of violence that social workers face is something of a mystery, leaving us to rely on anecdotal stories to gauge the issue.
This is not true of other helping professions. As Harper points out, there is plenty of current data on violence against nurses, especially since Covid-19, when workplace concerns for nurses were thrust into the media spotlight.
However, social workers didn’t receive much attention (if any) even though they, too, were on the front lines.
Organizations like National Nurses United, World Health Organization, the World Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all help to raise awareness of the plights of nurses and healthcare workers. Comparatively, there aren’t as many large, influential organizations amplifying the voices of social workers.
Underreporting and Lack of Training
Harper says this gap in data on violence against social workers is indicative of a larger problem.
“I feel like it’s difficult to gather those numbers because I think a lot of [incidents] go unreported,” she says. “As a result, I think that the numbers are probably not ever captured accurately.”
In its safety guidelines, the NASW states that social workers have the right to report concerns about violence and strongly recommends employers develop incident reporting systems. However, not all organizations follow these guidelines, and currently, they aren’t required to do so. Many employers don’t have any formal safety protocols or reporting avenues for social workers at all.
“As a new social worker, a lot of times you don’t even want to ask questions… because you don’t want to seem like you’re ‘trouble,’” says Harper. Because social workers aren’t encouraged enough to speak up about their concerns, they may hesitate to report incidents or keep worries to themselves—for instance, when they anticipate a dangerous situation or future acts of violence.
Discussing concerns ahead of time could go a long way in prevention. For example, when a manager is notified that a social worker doesn’t feel safe with a certain client, they may send along a partner to accompany them or take some other actions to mitigate.
It’s not uncommon for social workers to be thrust into risky situations without being taught what to do when violent situations arise. “I’ve never—not once in my career—had training on how to be safe when I’m in the office, how to be safe when I’m not in the field,” says Harper.
Social workers are told basic rules, such as making sure they are always the closest person to the door in case they need to escape a room, Harper says, but not much else. “That’s the only thing I’ve ever been taught [concerning safety] pretty much my entire career. Everything else, I’ve just kind of had to figure out.”
Social work curricula often have little to no coursework in this area. Some social workers may learn through their supervisors in practicums or internships, but the lack of formal education in this area—especially considering the prevalence of violence in the field—should be a major area of concern.
A Lack of Prevention and Action by Employers
Part of the problem of violence against social workers is rooted in the false notion that it is unpreventable. Harper provides a personal example. During her employment at a community substance abuse treatment facility, one of Harper’s patients disclosed a suicide pact that he’d made with another individual who had already fulfilled their intention died by suicide. “He told me that he intended to follow through on his part,” she says.
Like other mental health professionals, social workers have a mandatory duty to report when clients express intent to harm themselves or others. “My effort was to keep him safe.”
The patient was temporarily hospitalized and treated, but once he was released, he became fixated on retaliating against Harper, and yet there was no action taken by the hospital to mediate any potential retaliation against her. “There was nothing in place there, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been at a hospital where there was a place to report all safety concerns,” says Harper.
Luckily, the patient didn’t hurt Harper, but stories like these often end differently. Jacqueline Poquaa’s death spurred discussions about safety procedures at Methodist Hospital, where staff members said they had been advocating for safety and security well before the shooting.
Similarly, regarding the prior mentioned unnamed social worker who was stabbed in San Francisco, the victim had already disclosed concerns, but reportedly, no action was taken to keep him safe.
Stories like these underline the level of negligence that is the current status quo in many social work environments. Unfortunately, it can take something bad happening for organizations to finally enact formal guidelines and create avenues for social workers to express their concerns.
In 2023, the NASW started the development of a task force dedicated to social work safety—a notable victory for social workers—which Harper says was met with overwhelming support and interest from its membership.
For Harper and her peers who have been speaking up about safety concerns for years, any public attention or incremental amount of change is positive, but it’s frustrating that no measures were taken before these individuals lost their lives. And while a task force within the association is a move in the right direction, there’s still a lot more work to do to create meaningful change.
The Fight for Social Worker Safety
There is a movement to hold employers more accountable for social worker safety, which has finally gained traction after years of delays.
In 2019, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act was passed by the House, which has been underway since 2016. The bill would require healthcare and social service employers to adopt tailored plans to prevent workplace violence. It would also mandate them to identify and control hazards, improve reporting, and offer training for workers and management.
Associations including National Nurses United, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of Social Workers all back the bill.
However, it has been delayed multiple times and is not universally supported. For instance, the American Hospital Association states that “hospitals have already implemented specifically tailored policies and programs to address workplace violence” and that it doesn’t believe the standards are warranted, “nor does the association support an expedited approach that would deny the public the opportunity to review and comment on proposed regulations.”
The statement is obviously offensive to social workers—as it’s clear that whatever policies hospitals have in place are not working, as evidenced by cases like Poquaa’s. Unfortunately, the bill was never enacted as the Senate didn’t pass it. However, its provisions could become law by being included in another bill.
In addition to increasing social service employers’ accountability, there are other ways that the profession could be made more safe. Privacy protections are another weak spot, Harper points out. Rules regarding the information of social workers vary from state to state. In many cases, the personal addresses of social workers are publicly listed.
“All you need is for a social worker to do something that someone feels like is a slight against them and then they get to Googling and they can find out where you live,” says Harper. “So I feel like we should have protections in place for our privacy.”
To address this issue, states could consider giving social workers the option of having driver’s licenses that don’t list their home addresses and removing their home addresses from public record, which is allowed for peace officers and law enforcement officers in some states, Harper notes.
There are also conversations around increasing self-defense instruction and creating better training programs by public agencies, which could teach social workers (and their employers) formal safety protocols like formulating code words to signal for help secretly, de-escalation attempts, and disengagement skills. However, as Harper notes, these provisions would require more public funding.
Support from other professions on these initiatives would go a long way in bringing these changes to fruition.
“It needs to happen from within our own community,” Harper says. “Joint statements with the National Association of Social Work and the professional nursing organizations to denounce violence in the workplace and call for change … will be helpful.”
On a final note, Harper also adds that social workers themselves need to release the damaging self-sacrificing trope that has been entangled with the profession for too long. “We are trained to advocate better than anyone else. If anything can be done, we can do it. We just need to not feel guilty for using those skills for ourselves.”
Nina Chamlou is an avid writer and multimedia content creator from Portland, OR. She writes about aviation, travel, business, technology, healthcare, and education. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, studying the locale from behind her MacBook.