Zero Tolerance

BASW’s Ruth Stark tackles the issue of zero tolerance of violence against social work staff…

Another Social Worker Dies:
October 2nd and another social worker is killed in the course of her duty; this time in Henderson, Kentucky, USA. The social worker had taken a baby to visit his parents and the couple killed the social worker and abducted the baby.

The baby had been in public care since he was 13 days old because of neglect. The parents now face a charge of murder. In a press comment the father of the child said he had killed the social worker, said how sorry he was to his family for the hurt he had caused, but made no comment about the social worker. 

A Risky Business
Public duty and private passions can create a stormy mix. In social work we often meet this mix as we work with people who are emotionally stretched and pulled in all kinds of directions. We work in a risky business, in risky situations. We work with predicable risk and unexpected risk, the later often fuelled by the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol. We have Health and Safety experts trying to help us minimise that risk. But does this mean we should ever deny access to our services? 

Access Denied or Restricted
An increasing number of people who use our services are finding that they either cannot access a service or that it is only offered in a tightly controlled environment. How can we work through this to empower people to change?

The very nature of being a social worker and offering a social work service is that we often are called in when other universal services like health and education have failed. This puts us in a very unique situation, for if we fail where else can that person go to get help? We are there to help facilitate social inclusion, social cohesion and to work with people so that they can begin to feel part of our society. We reach out to people, we advocate with them from the margins of society and we are sometimes ourselves at the receiving end of their anger and frustration with the rest of society and their families who may have persistently failed them. 

Risks to Social Workers
Irene Sendler, the 95 year old Polish Social Worker who saved 2500 babies from the ghetto in World War II and placed them with polish families, burying their identity documents in jars in the ground so that their identity could be preserved, was tortured and sentenced to death by the Nazis. She escaped but was arrested and tortured by the communists…she demonstrated very clearly what a risky business we work in but also demonstrated the ethics and humanity at the root of our work.

I received a referral one day about ‘one of the most dangerous men in the prison system’. In the three years I worked with this person I never once felt he was a risk to anyone with whom he was in contact. He had been a risk to his daughter and his wife. He had through a build up of confused and dysfunctional emotions reached a point where he assaulted his daughter and killed his wife.

The turning point for myself and my colleague was when this man cried, for the first time since he killed his wife 20 years ago, he was crying for his lost childhood. He was beginning to work on sorting out his emotions. The environment, the passage of time, the work done with this man to change his responses and sort out his dysfunctional emotions resulted in a man working and living in the community, contributing and being part of society.

At another time I was held at knife point by a young woman, again with confused and dysfunctional emotions, but fuelled by 2 bottles of vodka and still standing upright, my adrenalin was working overtime to get out of that situation. I was thankful when the police arrived. Was it possible to continue working with this young woman after such a traumatic experience?

Our responses at such a critical time can either suppress change or be the catalyst to change. We make those decisions through the knowledge and skills we have and through our practice wisdom. {mospagebreak}

In the BASW Code of Ethics we are clear that we do not discriminate in offering our services. This means that we do not refuse to provide a service, to work with someone towards change, but we recognise that we have to think through how to offer that service.

This raises the issue about making sure that the person we are working with feels that they are not being oppressed yet again by the power and control wielded by the social worker. Empowerment is so often the key to defusing heightened emotions and creating a working relationship to effect change.

Recently I have had a number of press calls about the number of people being refused or given restricted access to local authority services because of the threat they pose to workers. I find these very difficult to answer, since on the one hand we cannot condone violence towards staff and we have to minimise risk as advocated by our Health and Safety colleagues, but we also have to be open and available to offer people opportunities to change.

So does the Changing Lives Agenda and the proposed ‘redesign of services’ offer an opportunity to look at ‘how’ we offer services? 

Redesign of Services
Have you noticed that some banks are changing their format again? Have you been as surprised as me when you have walked into an open plan bank, with desks and cashiers, no protective glass and a place to sit down? These banks which went through a high security phase are now welcoming us in, asking us to sit down, be comfortable and then we will talk about money. Initially this can be quite disconcerting but an open and friendly start to doing the business. What can we learn about walking into a social work office?

Visiting my brother in the Netherlands every shop, including the butchers, has a play area or play box for the children. If our reception areas say we are a functional local authority service we immediately set a tone for the business we are then there to do. If we are open, friendly and welcoming people would come to us sooner, when emotions are less fraught and we could reduce the stress that then builds up sometimes into inappropriate and violent behaviour.

There is a real challenge for the profession against the backdrop of increased awareness that we cannot condone violence to create services that prevent violence being part of that culture. This means not only a change of attitude but rethinking physically how we offer our services, recognising that we are often picking up people who have been abandoned by other services.

This requires extra effort on our part to achieve that working environment that encourages openness and honesty that helps build up trusting relationships with people who have often have experienced broken trust throughout their lives.

The SSSC talks of building up a confident, competent workforce that can reach out to people on their own terms and work with them for change. This is laudable but needs some capacity building and this must be the role for everyone in social work from the politicians who decide on what resources are available, through managers who determine how those resources will be used to the frontline practitioner who are the catalysts for change and sadly in the first line when it goes wrong. 

What Next?
Clearly redesigning services is not the only part of meeting this complex challenge, but it is a significant part. An equally important factor comes from the other perspective of health and safety. We need to have an open and honest discussion with health and safety colleagues about the nature of our job; that it is a risky business dealing with raw emotion and the unpredictability of substance misuse. We need to learn to minimise risk to ourselves but hold on to our principle of non-discrimination for people wishing to use our services.

Ruth Stark is Professional Officer with BASW in Scotland and a regular contributor to both Care Appointments magazine and the website at Further information on BASW can be found at