The very nature of social work - supporting vulnerable children and families at times of crisis - means the roles we play are often stressful and demanding. However, while challenging behaviour from service users is to be expected, abuse and violence against social workers can never be tolerated.
The impact of abusive and violent incidents are not only felt by social workers, but also by their colleagues, family, and friends. Keeping staff safe is vital if we are to attract new recruits and retain experienced staff.
Our Insult and Injury report, published in June 2018, uncovered deeply worrying findings concerning the experiences of social workers in Northern Ireland. In all, 86 per cent of participants had experienced intimidation while 75 per cent had received threats and half had been subjected to violence.
Children's social workers are particularly at risk, and participants working in residential child care services were the most likely to report being subjected to violence. The research shows abuse and violence against children's social workers is often initiated by parents, but can also come from other family members or friends.
Following the publication of the report, and our subsequent lobbying campaign, we were delighted by the establishment of a taskforce for safeguarding staff from abuse and violence chaired by Northern Ireland's chief social worker Sean Holland. To improve the safety of social workers the following steps must be taken:
1. Engage your staff
Frontline staff are best placed to identify solutions, so managers need to actively engage staff in efforts to minimise the risks they face. Employees may understandably hesitate to tell bosses where staff safeguarding policies require improvement, so it is essential they know their feedback is valued. Managers can demonstrate this by receiving information enthusiastically and without appearing defensive.
It is also vital that responsibility for developing safeguarding polices and practices is not handed to a steering group of senior managers with one or two frontline staff involved. To effectively address the needs of staff the process should be steered by the social workers that employers are aiming to protect.
2. Get the basics right
All social workers should be provided with mandatory skills training for dealing with potentially violent or dangerous situations and staff who work in a community setting must be provided with a personal safety alarm or a smartphone and lone worker safety app. Where there is a risk to safety, employers must ensure social workers are enabled to undertake home visits in pairs or facilitate office-based contact with service users.
If a social worker has experienced an intimidating, threatening or violent incident, their manager should offer to transfer the case in question to another team member. However, it is essential that any such decision is made by the social worker involved. Transferring the case against their wishes may add to feelings of disempowerment.
3. Put your house in order
Employers must conduct an audit of the security features of social work workplaces and implement practical security measures to improve staff safety where failings are identified. It is also essential employers have safety at work policies, including lone worker policies that recognise the unique role social workers undertake, often alone and in hostile environments.
Furthermore, managers need to recognise their duty of care to staff extends beyond core working hours. Where there is evidence of risk to a social worker's safety outside the workplace, employers must cover the cost of appropriate home security measures, for example security lighting and CCTV equipment.
4. Create a culture of reporting and supporting
For too many social workers, experiences of violence and abuse are regarded as part and parcel of the job and often incidents go unreported to employers and the police. We want to see a cultural shift, with social workers recognising it is their responsibility to immediately report all incidents of intimidation, threats and violence to a manager. This is key to ensuring employers learn from events and help prevent them recurring.
When incidents occur, employers should respond in a compassionate and consistent manner. There needs to be a commitment to support staff, on an ongoing basis, through supervision, and provision of counselling where this is required. Social workers should also be assisted by their employers to take legal action against perpetrators, with staff supported throughout the process.
5. Help raise awareness
It is essential that all members of the public recognise that intimidation, threats and violence against social workers are unacceptable, and employers have a role to play. We would also like to see a public awareness campaign led by the Department of Health and including all relevant Northern Ireland Executive departments and agencies.
The British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland will be campaigning for the introduction of legislation to create the offence of "assault of a social worker", ensuring parity with protections currently afforded to police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers in the region.
By Carolyn Ewart, national director, British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland