Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Social Worker Safety [1 of 2]

This week, I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Charles Ennis, a former police officer on a Mental Health Emergency Services Unit in Canada, on the important topic of social worker safety.   

Thank you, Marianna @AuntieStress, for this invaluable introduction!

Charles has not only trained many agencies and their staff on how to be safe when working in the field with the mentally-ill but has also co-authored a book on the subject with a former colleague (social worker) Janet Douglas entitled: The Safe Approach: Controlling Risk for Workers in the Helping Professions

Without further ado, Charles, could you share with us a bit of your background - what led you into the field of law enforcement?

I left the military in 1977 and started my career with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) as I felt drawn to law enforcement. I liked the idea of being a peace officer. (Under Canadian and provincial legislation police are referred to as peace officers, not police officers.) I retired from the Vancouver Police Department in November 2005 after serving 29 years with them. 

I was awarded the Governor General’s Exemplary Service Medal. My past job assignments within the VPD included the Emergency Response Team, Hostage Negotiator, Child Abuse Investigator, Gang Crime Unit, and the Mental Health Emergency Services Unit.

I am currently working as a VPD dispatcher at Emergency Communications center (ECOMM) for Southwestern British Columbia. All 911 calls go there and are routed to the appropriate agencies from there.

How did your interest in the safety of social workers develop and what led you to ultimately co-author a book with a social worker on this subject?

In 1996, when I started working for the child abuse investigation car (a social worker and a cop work together to do child abuse and child welfare investigations), I noticed over and over again in reading social worker reports that they were regularly going into dangerous situations with little or no training to deal with them, with little or no equipment and resources.

It is amazing how little effort has been expended by some agencies to train field workers how to survive violent encounters with clients they encounter in the field. Proper training, planning and preparation can prevent many violent incidents from occurring and can enhance workers' ability to survive violent encounters.

Depending on luck is a poor substitute for taking constructive measures to prevent a violent encounter. The current state of knowledge of safety procedures makes your ability to stay safe in the field greater than ever.

Yet more effort is likely to have gone into the counseling and support that a worker receives after an assault than that worker or that worker's agency devoted to worker safety before the assault.

When we first started doing safety training for social workers and public health nurses in 1996, there were concerns from the field administrators that the material being presented might incite fear in the workers, resulting in them never leaving their office.

One of the first things that we do in our sessions is to ask the attendees to take a moment to write down past work situations where they found themselves in dangerous or violent situations. Many of them come up with personal accounts of risk and injury.

In other words, these people have already experienced the dangers of the job. They are attending classes like ours because they wanted strategies and techniques that allow them to overcome the fears and anxieties that they already have experienced on the job so that they can continue to do those valuable jobs.

You can't make yourself safe unless you have a true appreciation of the risks involved. Only then can you adequately prepare for them. The best defense for any field worker is to be prepared before violence happens.

This often makes it possible for you to avoid potential violence altogether, and can substantially reduce the number of incidents that escalate to the point of violence. The old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ certainly applies here.

Your body will often react to impending danger before you become consciously aware of it. When suddenly confronted with violence, your body will automatically revert to an instinctive “fear-fight-flight mode.”

It has been our experience that workers often dismiss the physiological symptoms they are having when they begin to feel unsafe and attempt to continue their interview or assessment. They fail to trust their instincts.

If you become aware that you are experiencing these symptoms, you should begin looking for the cause.  If you ignore them, you may end up being surprised by the client’s violent outburst. Under these circumstances, you will instinctively revert to the way you have trained. If you have neither rehearsed nor planned a response, you will be left with a basic “startle response” which is rarely an appropriate response to a violent outburst.

Usually there will be some clue or danger sign warning of violence. Something about the client's behavior will indicate his or her intent. Learning the body language of violent clients is essential to your safety. You should watch for displays of pre-assaultive behaviors that will warn you of an impending attack. 

Are social workers who work in particular settings more at risk for harm than others?

Client violence can occur in the office and in the field. The field is more dangerous because in the client’s home there are more unknown variables and the client has the control of the environment. A client can decide when, where, and whom to attack, on grounds that may be totally irrational and indiscriminate. On the other hand, moral and psychological considerations that inhibit quick, impulsive action usually influence the worker.

Clients know you won't make the first violent move. You may not want to use violence. You may find violence morally distasteful. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the client will not share your views. Faced with arrest, hospitalization, or with the removal of their children, clients may feel that they have nothing to lose. They may accept violence as a natural risk of their lifestyle. When they act, they are only thinking of themselves.

What are the key warning signs that social workers should watch out for in their clients?

Safety is a matter of on-going assessment of your surroundings and making timely decisions based on that assessment. Safety is a matter of constantly reviewing your actions to learn from your mistakes. The first step toward greater personal safety in the field is knowing where to draw the line. Violent behavior on the part of the client may be understandable, but it is never acceptable.

Usually there will be some clue or danger sign warning of violence. Something about the client's behavior will indicate his or her intent. You should watch for displays of pre-assaultive behaviors that will warn you of an impending attack, including:

1. Pacing or restlessness
2. Rapid breathing
3. Grinding of teeth
4. Clenched fists
5. Sudden immobility or coiled postures indicating a readiness to strike
6. Dilated pupils
7. Flaring nostrils
8. Sweating, especially when the temperature and the client’s level of recent activity make perspiration unlikely
9. Trembling of the client's hands and extremities
10. Intent staring. The direction of the client’s gaze may even indicate the client’s intended target.
11. Bobbing and dipping movements. If the client begins to shift his weight he may be adjusting his posture to allow himself to grab or strike. 
12. Rapid mood swings
13. Loud speech, especially if threatening
14. Bizarre behavior. Body language that does not match the client’s verbal message.

If the client is exhibiting any or all of these cues, the situation may be escalating. It may be time to get out.

How would you recommend that social workers respond when clients are threatening and/or violent?

Everyone has their own level of comfort/tolerance based on their abilities. The trick is not to exceed your capabilities and comfort. That’s what safety awareness is all about. The moment you feel uncomfortable, you need to get out of the situation

Social workers aren’t peace [police] officers; they aren’t there to control violence. Basic Sun Tzu: the best general is the one who wins without ever having engaged the enemy. Let’s not get into a fight in the first place, if possible.

Thanks so much, Charles for this most informative interview on social worker safety! 

Do any questions and/or comments come to your mind aboutsocial worker safety?

Sneak Preview: Make sure to check out Part II of this interview; Charles will be providing us with helpful safety tips to employ out in the field!


  1. Dorlee,

    I'm glad to have been able to connect you with Charles, so that you could connect him with the broader reach of your readers.

    I particularly liked what he said about intuition - that our body speaks to and for us - learning to listen is one of the key steps in staying safe.

  2. I wanted to add one more thought - this post is invaluable for teachers, nurses, paramedics. Basically anyone who has to deal with the public.

  3. Thanks again, Marianna - I am most grateful :)

    Charles has provided us all with so much priceless information about keeping safe!

    Yes, his advice about listening to our intuition was fascinating...and thanks for pointing out that this post may also be helpful for all those who interface with the public!

  4. He has written a book every single social worker should read. Sadly, those who teach social workers are living in a utopian worldview where no one gets angry, is on drugs or drunk, or who would ever cause violence toward a social worker. They see these dangerous people with total compassion instead of proper caution and that has lead to attcks, injury, rape and even death of the social worker. Your teachers are out of touch with the reality on the streets. If you are a social worker, or know one, get this book! It could save a life.

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    I agree that every single social worker should either read Charles' book and/or heed the advice he is giving here and in part two of this interview.

    However, I'm not sure that I would agree with the second part of your statement...I don't think that those who teach social workers are necessarily living in utopia but rather they may (wrongly) assume that the agency/setting where a social worker is working will always provide social workers with adequate safety guidance.

    And this is sadly not true :(

  6. Great blog/interview; social worker classes need to talk about that more. I am looking forward to part 2 of the interview. keep it up!!

  7. Glad you enjoyed the interview!

    Part 2 of the interview will go live on Tuesday :)

  8. Listening to your intuition and paying attention to what your body is telling you is the number one safety lesson I've learned in my field work. Personally, I'm not usually afraid of what clients will do as much as I am other people in the building or neighborhood, but the lesson holds up. Every dangerous situation I've encountered has been one that I had a feeling about, but ignored. I'm finally at a point where I will skip a home visit, cross the street, or run (this has only happened once--all the gang members were running one way, so I went the opposite) and not care if someone on the street is a little insulted or thinks I'm crazy.

    It was good to hear that advice from a professional! Thanks :)

  9. Thank you for being willing to share some of your learnings from the field.

    I think you've raised a very important additional safety concern that comes up particularly when one is working out in the field and that is - other people in the building or neighborhood.

    It's wonderful to hear from you that listening to your intuition and what your body is telling you (an important tool that Charles has mentioned is all too often ignored) has been an effective method of addressing safety concerns in your neighborhood.

    And I'm totally with you - who cares if someone on the street thinks you're crazy by changing directions in the way you are walking etc when listening to your intuition - you need to keep safe!

  10. @Dorleem I work in CPS Investigations in NC, and this is the book my agency used in our safety training course. Pleasure to be connected to such a valuable resource. Will be adding a link to the interview and Safe Approach to Socialworkhelper

  11. Hi Deona,

    Thanks for sharing your positive feedback and agency experience with using the Safe Approach book written by Charles Ennis.

    You are also most kind in adding a link to this interview at Socialworkhelper. That is most appreciated :)

  12. Thank you for highlighting the importance of this issue.

  13. Thank you, Sue, for stopping by to share your kind feedback :)