ISWs: How to protect yourself from violence
Close Protection Officer David Hammond on how Independent Social Workers need to keep safe in their work and protect themselves from harm.
In 2014 the Community Care website ran a survey regarding the physical abuse that social workers experienced. The figures perhaps were not a great shock to those that work on the front line, but for those that do not routinely think of social work being a dangerous occupation, the figures were quite astounding. Eighty-five per cent of those surveyed had been subjected to physical or verbal abuse. As well as ‘minor’ assaults such as spitting, social workers suffered arson attacks and stabbings when going about their daily jobs.
The survey suggested that 50% of social workers felt they should be better trained to cope with individuals of a violent persuasion. The attack on two social workers in a Liverpool Family Court a year later would certainly not have assisted morale within the profession and for those that believe that American trends eventually make their way over the Atlantic, there is real cause for concern: being a social worker in the US is one of the most deadly jobs according to the CBS, with victims suffering attacks from guns, chainsaws as well as knives, fists and boots.
Social workers in the UK remain inadequately prepared for confrontations with people of known violent tendencies and records. Leaving such professionals exposed to threats of and actual violence without adequate support or training does our wider society a disservice.
Around the time that the Community Care article was published, I spoke with a recently qualified social worker about her feelings and experiences and was given a response that was in line with the article's conclusion: my friend felt inadequately prepared to go into an individual’s home when that individual may be hostile. As a result I contacted three universities offering my services as a trainer: I received no acknowledgments of my communications at all.
Not only did my attempt to become involved in training fall on deaf ears, but the problem has not gone away. In December of last year the Law at Work website highlighted a case where two social workers carrying out a home visit for the purpose of doing a child safety plan were attacked with an iron bar. Both had, apparently, being making notes at the time, so had not been prepared for the assault. In this case Brent Council were deemed to have breached the Health and Safety at Work Act, but a greater awareness by the social workers of the threat involved could have prevented the serious assault taking place.
The first rule of self-defence, of course, is not to be there. But it is not just soldiers and police officers that need to put themselves in harm’s way. Those of us that are professionally required to be in such locations should understand some basic rules, signs and techniques to ensure we are safe.
The first and foremost rule to learn is the ‘P’ rule: Proper planning and preparation. In the modern era managers everywhere talk of risk assessments, but for social workers on call, a threat assessment should be aded alongside this as a basic requirement. This means basic intelligence gathering regarding the home and people to be visited. Under that heading there are a number of factors to be considered: it is not just the hostility of one or two individuals: what is the work/sleep pattern of the individual? If alcohol or drugs are involved what time of day are they likely to be better receptive to a visit? Presumably much information can be taken from case notes, but there are open sources that should also be consulted, such as social media sites that will provide useful information. Certainly as a Close Protection Officer, when considering a role, the first thing I will do is make an electronic search for relevant information about my principal and the potential threat to their safety. Many individuals will share their grievances on social media website Facebook, so a look at their friend responses will help gauge what sort of reaction can be expected to your knock on the door.
If the alarm bells are ringing loudly of course a visit should not be made alone. As a Close Protection Officer I am used to presenting as something different. The second person does not need to loudly state they are there for safety reasons - that is just an antagonism. I could be a trainee, a note-taker, a supervisor. The addition of a second person increases the safety considerably, but even then roles should be identified. If you watch two police officers engaged in conversation with a third party, observe their positions: the two will place themselves at 45 degree angles to the third party. There are physical and psychological reasons for this. Full frontal face-to-face in too close proximity is an invasion of an individual’s space, which will heighten their levels of anxiety, potentially leading to a violent response. Also the angles would make it difficult to launch an attack on one of the officers without exposing a flank to the second officer. If you are on the wrong end of this it is something that you will instinctively understand. In my years of security work I only had one person actually attempt violence from this positon and he was a Special Air Service veteran.
This last observation underlines a valid point. Many violent people will have a perception of when it is viable to actually engage violence – they have a warped, but nevertheless real understanding of the utility of violence and it is our job to try to understand that, so as to counter, or better still, avoid it.
The toilet could be your refuge
Entering a property provides even more dilemmas and the senses should be heightened: in fact they will be, but it is important to understand and control what is happening to your own body. A good body posture again has a duel purpose. By standing erect with head up you are telling any would-be assailant that you are alert and not an easy target – that is a deterrent right there. You should also be taking in your surroundings, looking for potential dangers: what sort of latch is on the door; how many entrances/exits to the room you are going to be entering; can you hear other voices, if so, what is the tone; is there a dog about; where is the kitchen and the toilet? The kitchen you need to know about because it is a potential arsenal and the toilet just may be your refuge whilst you summon assistance. The back door you should already know about from your planning stage.
To take in all that information it is important that you are in control of your breathing: you need to think clearly. If that is not happening, then get onto it quickly. You should be alert to the general tone of the environment you have just entered because you need to immediately set your own tone for the conversations you are about to engage in: do that badly and it can blow up pretty quickly.
Understanding the do's and don’ts of your conversation are vital, but is not really what this article is about. I was once in a room with a social worker who did not do their homework and asked a very wrong question early on. It set a tone of mistrust, had a child unnecessarily in tears and raised tension: it could have ended violently. Suffice to say here that tone of voice, active listening and clear message sending are important.
Always accept a drink
Active listening is, of course, part of the social worker's job, something that I wouldn’t dream of lecturing on in terms of getting a job done, but in terms of staying safe, active listening is, in effect, intelligence gathering: listen to the message, listen to the tone and you should see where somebody is going perhaps even before they do.
Watch, also, body language and eye movement. Signs of potential violence include finger-prodding, large arm movements and heavy breathing; a person with a concealed weapon will be continually checking it, so if a hand is going in and out of a pocket, beware. Psychologists will also talk about what the pupils of the eyes are doing (dilating). In my experience watching for such a detail is difficult, but what you should pick up on is eye movement: if somebody’s eyes are rapidly scanning, they are considering (violent) options.
Once you are in somebody else’s home it can be difficult to sort out your own positioning and space: the layout is theirs, but if you know you are in a potentially hostile arena you should be calculating various options: you will not always be able to position yourself nearer to the door than the interviewee, so perhaps you should park yourself somewhere where a table or a chair is between you and the second party, something that will slow them down and give them time to re-think a violent strategy. Always, by-the-way, take the offer of a hot drink if you are to be there any length of time. The action of making the drink will calm them down, and the arrival of the liquid gives you something that can be used in self-defence.
Active self-defence is not something, in my experience, that people who enter the caring professions like particularly. The defence often turns into offence when you go along to self-defence classes run by enthusiasts of violence, many of whom have not had to deal with the reality of physical confrontation. Assertiveness and breakaway techniques are generally preferred and are more appropriate. If you find yourself in a place of rising tension how you use your voice and your body is very important.
As well as watching the signals of the other party you should also be sending your own: a firm voice, raised but not shouting can send the message that no good can come for them from physical confrontation.
Time to leave
Obviously nobody wants to be in a situation where physical violence takes place, but you do need to be prepared. A good distance should be maintained so that any sudden movement can be picked up on. Once a move is made, you must also move: first because it is time to leave, but also because if you stay still, then the other person has an easy target to strike at. Movement will ensure they need to recalibrate, which will take time and energy and may give you the chance to distract them (open questions are always a good means of stopping people because the brain cannot cope with having to formulate an answer at the same time as organising a physical task such as an assault). Random words can also cause confusion for an assailant for the same reason; try stating that banana colour size is long to a friend and see how that disturbs their concentration.
I will leave with two thoughts on the actual physical side of such a situation. If you are struck, it is not over. When it comes to fight, flight or freeze, the latter is the worst you can do because simply the assault may not stop – you need to be manoeuvring toward the door. Second if you are grabbed, try not to pull away, rather break the grip by twisting and leveraging against the thumb and forefinger. Once this stage has been reached it is time to leave.
David Hammond, MA psychology, is an SIA qualified Close Protection Officer, and trainer in de-escalation and physical intervention. You can visit his website at www.dthprotection.com or email him at email@example.com