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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 3, No. 2
July 1998

Maintaining Your Safety in the Field

Not long ago, a Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker in Michigan was killed by two members of a family with whom she was working.

If you read about it in the papers, your first reactions to this killing were probably horror and sympathy—this woman was doing the same thing I do. Unless you managed to put it out of your mind right away, you may have moved on to feelings of curiosity and fear—what went wrong? Were there warning signs? How can I keep that from happening to me?

Before Your Visit

Before you enter a family's home, you should have a safety action plan. This plan should include precautions that will help you avoid stepping into a dangerous situation. It should also contain strategies that will help you manage a confrontation if one occurs.

Safety Assessment. To gather the basic information you need for an action plan, you should conduct a safety assessment of the situation. Doing a safety assessment before you leave the office will allow you to decide what preventative measures you should take, such as who to bring (going out in teams, or with police), when to visit (preferably during daylight hours), and how to proceed.

As a first step in this assessment, learn what you can about the family's history: have they had violent encounters with the police, schools, or social services? Is there a history of mental illness in the family? Have they had negative interactions with agencies in the past? Some of these details will be noted in agency records. For others, you may need to consult informal sources, such as your supervisor, coworkers, or colleagues from other agencies.

Also, give serious consideration to the street, neighborhood, or area where the family lives. You will want to exercise extra caution—for example, avoid wearing jewelry—in known drug areas, isolated places, or high crime areas. No matter where you are going, be sure your car has enough gas and is in good working order.

Find out what you can about the activities and whereabouts of cults and militia groups in your area. Even if they are not directly involved in a case, these groups may be a danger—they often have very different views of reality, and could perceive your actions as threatening, unwarranted, or unconstitutional. Cults and militias may feel justified in threatening or attacking child welfare professionals (Horejsi & Garthwait, 1997).

Although many times you will not be able to learn much about a family, even a little information can help you make an informed judgement.

Safety Action Plan. When you've found out what you can, make a plan. Be sure to follow any safety protocols or policies your agency has (for example, leave information about where you are going). In addition, the next article, "Sample Action Plan for Safety", contains suggestions for keeping yourself safe on a visit.

To ensure your plan fits with the particular visit at hand, think about similar visits you've had to make in the past—what worked and what didn't? If you have limited practice experience, consult someone you know who does. And trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Try to figure out why, and decide what to do.

Awareness Is Key

No matter how thorough you are, safety assessments and action plans are not magic bullets. If they are to work at all, you must remain alert and observant once you are in a family's home.

Observing your surroundings and the people you are talking to are second nature for you as a social worker—this is how you assess the safety of children and the needs of their families. But you can also use your skill as an observer to identify potential safety risks.

Finally, a word of caution: don't get carried away. Most of the families we see are not a threat. Safety assessments and action plans are useful only because they promote our awareness and reduce our fear so we can focus on helping families.

References

Dernocoeur, K. (1993, July). Tips on defusing a violent situation. JEMS, 78-79.

Flick, J. (1996). Defusing potentially violent situations: Keeping yourself and others safe. Unpublished. Presented at social worker safety training.

Griffin, W., Montsinger, J., & Carter, N. (1997). Resource guide for administrators and other personnel. Durham, NC: ILR, Inc.

Horejsi, C. & Garthwait, C. (1997). Be careful out there: CPS worker safety in rural areas. Protecting Children, 13(1), 12-14.

Nadwairski, J. A. (1994). Inner city safety for home care providers. Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, 2, 4-6.

1998 Jordan Institute for Families