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How much violence are social workers expected to take before they gain some kind of protection?

A social worker got up and went to work for Haringey Council in August. Later that day he was admitted to hospital with multiple stab wounds following a welfare check on a child.

Can we now please recognise the risk and danger that social workers place themselves in on a daily basis in the course of duty? Social workers encounter violence, aggression and insults during the course of their work – which is fundamentally safeguarding children or vulnerable adults.

But far from being praised for their heroic efforts, social workers are slammed in the national press as ‘interfering busybodies, left-wing loonies who interfere in families lives and snatch children for no good reason’.

Hippy commune

What other profession in the country gets type cast for what they wear or should be wearing? Social workers are frequently mocked for being cardigan clad, sandal wearing lefties with a penchant for floral scarves and tie dye.

Judging by the description of social workers in the ill-conceived misconceptions, it would be like heading into some hippy commune on entering children’s services departments rather than a highly trained, skilled and dedicated workforce.

It is insulting and dangerous and social workers should not have to put up with it.

In their daily role of protecting children at risk from physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect, social workers have reported being stabbed, held hostage, had hot drinks thrown at them, threatened with weapons and spat at.

The abuse was so persistent in some cases that social workers were forced to move house or leave their job.

A massive 85% of social workers said they had been physically assaulted, verbally abused or harassed in the past year and, in most cases, the abuse was carried out by a service user or service user’s relative.

9/10 social workers experienced intimidation

These findings emerged from a survey carried out by Community Care in 2014 . But there is little to suggest the plight of social workers has improved since then.

In fact in June 2018, BASW Northern Ireland published research which found that almost nine out of every 10 social workers (86%) who participated in our survey have experienced intimidation, three-quarters (75%) have received threats, and half (50%) have been subjected to physical violence.

The report said that associated impacts on social workers’ emotional, mental and physical wellbeing, their performance in work, and their family lives is deeply concerning. BASW Northern Ireland recognises aggression, both veiled and overt, directed towards social workers is often prompted by stress and worry caused by problems facing service users and their families. Nevertheless, it is essential that social workers can work free from intimidation, threats and violence.

Building on this, in April 2021 BASW launched a petition urging the government to amend the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 using the current Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill to include social workers as a profession that it is an additional offence to assault whilst on duty.

Unacceptable

To date, the petition has received more than 13,000 signatures. BASW sent a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel outlining the reasoning behind the petition.

“Social workers as part of their statutory duties regularly work with people in situations of severe stress: for example, child safeguarding, domestic abuse, mental health and vulnerable young people. Occasionally, this stress spills over into violence against social workers themselves.”

“As the professional membership organisation for social workers, we regularly hear from our members about difficult and challenging circumstances that they have had to work in as part of their job. There is no shortage of stories from social workers about their experiences of being threatened or assaulted when on duty. This is unacceptable.”

“Social workers are entitled to parity of esteem with other public sector professionals such as health workers in the NHS. This is not an attempt to penalise those individuals who use social work services and are genuinely vulnerable, but an important right for social workers knowing that they enjoy the same legal protections as other professionals in similar situations.”

As the petition has surpassed 10,000 signatures in support of the move, the issue warrants a government response.

No assistance

Worryingly, the Community Care survey revealed that violence against social workers is still being regarded as “just part of the job” and not being treated seriously.

WillisPalmer’s Head of Practice Lucy Hopkins said: “Police go out in pairs, with batons and tasers and radios with panic buttons. However, social workers undertake all home visits alone, unless in some really severe situations where there is a serious risk and the manager allows a colleague to go along too.”

“When a judge rules that a child needs to be removed from the family home for their own safety, it is either one social worker or two who physically take the child from the home and take them to a place of safety, depending on the practice in the team. But there is no assistance from the police.”

“It is scary to think that before we had work mobile phones, there was no way of colleagues being able to contact us to check that we were ok,” added Lucy.

The survey also revealed that nine out of 10 social workers feel at personal risk at least some of the time, with one in five saying they feel unsafe “often” or “almost all the time” while at work.

Two thirds of those who did not report incidents to either their employer or the police said it was because they considered abuse as to be expected in their role.

Half of social workers surveyed said they had never received any training on how to cope with violent individuals, despite most being required to enter high risk situations, often alone and without adequate support.

Hostile situations

Mark Willis, Chief Executive of WillisPalmer, said: “It is completely unacceptable for anyone to experience violence or aggression in the workplace. But while the London Underground is adorned with posters saying that transport staff – quite rightly – will not tolerate abuse, social workers are expected to face verbal and physical assaults during the course of their duty which, ironically, is protecting vulnerable people. The extent of the violence experienced by social workers was sadly illustrated in the recent attack on a social worker in Haringey carrying out a welfare check on a child. He received multiple stab wounds and was hospitalised and, undoubtedly left seriously traumatised by the attack.”

“Social workers often walk into some very hostile situations. While it is not a social worker’s decision whether a child should be removed from a family – it is down to a judge who has heard all the evidence available – it is the social worker who has to physically remove the child from their family which is often an emotionally charged and distressing situation. Yet social workers are afforded little protection to carry out this intense work.”

“BASW are correct to launch a petition urging social workers to be afforded the same protection that other public sector workers are quite rightly given. No one should ever have to be fearful of their safety when carrying out their duties. Yet rather than being applauded for the work they do in incredibly stressful situations, social workers are vilified in some parts of the media and wrongly blamed for ‘taking children from their families’. Children are only ever removed from their families if it is in their best interests and to protect them from harm and that decision is made by a judge.”

“It is essential that social workers are afforded the same protection as other public sector workers, as should already be the case,” concluded Mark Willis.

Mark Willis, Chief Executive, WillisPalmer
Working Together For Children

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