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Half of social workers experience violence

Half of social workers experience violence: responded to a BASW Northern Ireland survey have experienced physical violence.

Social workers in Northern Ireland described examples of the violence they experienced which included being pulled to the floor and kicked in the head, being punched in the face, being grabbed by the throat and choked, being bitten, having bones broken, and being pushed around and manhandled.

Respondents also recounted experiences of being attacked with knives or improvised weapons, for example, chairs, fire extinguishers, and hot liquids. Numerous incidents of being spat upon were cited in social workers’ responses.

Several social workers needed hospital treatment for their injuries while one individual reported being left unconscious as a result of an assault. Two social workers cited experiences of being assaulted when pregnant.

“Intimidation, threats and violence – incidents which endanger personal safety are familiar to many social workers,” said Colin Reid, chair of BASW Northern Ireland. “In supporting and safeguarding the most vulnerable people in society, social workers can become targets for abuse and violence. This is often at the hands of the individuals they are working to protect, or those close to them.”

Of all the social workers surveyed:

  • 15% explained they had experienced physical assault between two and five times during their career,
  • 5% had been physically assaulted six to 10 times, and
  • 10% reported being assaulted more than 10 times

Several respondents reported being held against their will by service users during home visits. In some cases the social workers were assaulted and threats were made against their lives. Intentional damage to vehicles was reported as a common occurrence.

Further, three quarters of respondents stated that in their role as a social worker they had experienced a threat of violence made against them, a family member, an organisation they have worked for, or a colleague they have worked with. Two-thirds of all respondents had experienced threats either in person or on the telephone at least once while 27% said that they had been subjected to this type of threat more than 10 times.

“The nature of many of the threats received are deeply shocking. Respondents noted receiving death threats, threats to torture and threats to rape. While most frequently directed at social workers, threats of these type were also intended for the partners and children of social workers,” said the report. “Two separate accounts were submitted detailing incidents where social workers were sent death threats accompanied by bullets in the post.”

Respondents reported receiving threats to burn down social workers’ houses with them and their family inside, or to set fire to a social work office while staff are in the building. Social workers were also threatened with sexual violence.

The report also that found 86% of social workers said that they have experienced intimidating behaviour intended to make them worried or afraid, despite no explicit threat being made against them.

Social workers had home visits recorded and photographs taken of them or their vehicles, while others were sworn at and received verbal abuse. Some service users misused the complaints process in a bid to undermine social workers.

Service users also implied threats by referring to personal information about social workers, for example detailing knowledge of their home address, car registration or information about their children’s schools.

Respondents reported feeling anxious and depressed following incidents and a number of social workers experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

The report urges the Department of Health and all relevant Northern Ireland Executive departments and agencies to launch a public awareness campaign calling for the unacceptability of intimidation, threats and violence against social workers to be highlighted. Employers should also provide training for social workers to deal with potentially violent or dangerous situations.

‘Insult and Injury: Exploring the impacts of intimidation, threats and violence against social workers’

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