When the knives are out

No one likes to take their work home with them. But for social
care professionals it can be difficult to avoid. For some staff,
slashed car tyres, stalking and threats have become part of the
job. In extreme cases professionals have had to move, take their
children out of school or leave the office at the same time as
colleagues to stay safe.

Sandra McCulloch,* a mental health social worker in Scotland who
chose to return to work part-time after the birth of her son, soon
felt as though she was working round the clock seven days a week
after a service user threatened her son’s life (see panel). Twelve
months on, she is still off sick and unsure whether she will ever
return to social work.

McCulloch’s case is not unique. Mental health, probation and social
care workers are forced to accept that service users see them as
care professionals, irrespective of where they are and whether they
are on duty.

Most of the time, this does not carry serious consequences. But
when a user holds a particular care professional responsible for an
unpopular decision, or for the failings of the wider system, the
impact on that professional’s personal life can be immense.

Steps have been taken towards ensuring that violent clients are
better controlled and staff better protected. Risk assessments are
supposed to be carried out, incidents recorded and safety measures
put in place.

But when that violence or threat of violence follows a care
professional home, the impact on their life is multiplied. The
feeling of being violated is intensified and the level of fear
experienced – both for themselves and for those they live with – is
raised dramatically.

By law, employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of
employees “so far as is reasonably practicable”. Management of
Health and Safety at Work Regulations require employers to assess
risks so that they are reduced “to the lowest possible

Public sector union Unison says there is no doubt that work-related
violence is not limited to the workplace but can happen in the
community, to and from work, and even in the worker’s
home.1 It says this is acknowledged by the Health and
Safety Executive’s own definition of violence at work as “any
incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted in
circumstances relating to their work”.

Despite this apparent clarity, councils’ and NHS trusts’
responsibilities towards off-duty employees remain unsatisfactorily
vague. While employees are forced to carry the responsibility of
their professional status outside work, employers often consider
that their responsibility towards them ends as soon as they clock

In McCulloch’s case, the local authority failed to offer support
after her son’s life was threatened, failed to follow its own
post-incident procedures for such events and, in her opinion,
failed to meet their duty of care towards her. “I kept thinking
somebody from the department would contact me,” McCulloch says.
“All the guidelines talk about the support that should be available
and the mechanisms for allowing a person to talk. But a week after
the threat was made, no one had phoned. They treated me very

An HSE spokesperson admits that violence towards care professionals
outside work is a “bit of a grey area” in terms of employers’
duties. She believes such cases would normally constitute
harassment and simply be a matter for the police.

“The unions want to push it as far as they can,” she adds. “But if
we look at that in a logical way, it’s almost impossible. Do you
want a secure door put on every worker’s house? Look at the costs
of it.”

But police involvement in a case does not preclude employers
playing a role. Hugh Robertson, Unison’s head of health and safety,
is resolute that employers have a legal and moral duty to employees
who are assaulted or threatened as a result of their professional
status, wherever they may be. He says employers should make it
clearer to service users that abuse of staff will result in the
withdrawal of services, and to follow through on these threats –
unless this is inappropriate, for example, for people with
diminished capability.

Robertson says that, when a member of staff is being harassed, it
is up to the local authority to work with the police and the
individual. Where necessary, the local authority must be prepared
to take out restraining orders against suspects, despite the costs

He insists it is the employer’s responsibility to fund the
replacement of damaged property, such as slashed tyres, if it is
likely that the damage was caused as a result of the employee’s
work. He also believes employers should provide counselling and

Ian Johnston, director of the British Association for Social
Workers, doubts whether employers will ever be good enough in terms
of fulfilling their duty of care towards employees. “It’s a
challenge that employers should continually be rising to,” he says.
“The approach of some employers falls far short of what is

He would like a new indicator measuring such support to be
introduced into the performance assessment framework rather than it
always focusing on staff performance.

Steven Sumner, national health and safety policy adviser for the
Employers’ Organisation, acknowledges that all public contact has
the potential for becoming difficult, “particularly if a service
provider is becoming a service remover”. He argues that if threats
and harassment are affecting an employee’s private life, local
authorities should be prepared to provide legal support, such as
the injunctions already sought by some councils. “Local authorities
want to be seen as good employers and would wish to support their
employees,” says Sumner.

Key to any employer’s response to a violent incident or threat must
also be their ability to learn from the experience, and improve
practice as a result. A former senior manager says social workers
in the child protection field are particularly at risk because
parents are often unhappy with decisions made about their children.
She says more regular support and supervision for front-line
workers would allow difficult cases to be transferred as soon as
potential problems were detected, and greater openness would enable
employees to say when they were finding a case stressful.

With the already existing problems in the recruitment and retention
of social workers, it is imperative that everything is done to
ensure that those who choose a career in social care, mental health
or probation are not also sentenced to a life of fear. CC

1 Unison, Violence at Work: A Guide to Risk
, January 2003, from


* Names have been changed.

Life for man with grievance 

A man who developed a grievance against social workers who were
involved in care proceedings over his son in the 1990s was
sentenced to life at Preston Crown Court last year.

Andrew Roberts broke into the former home of one of the child
protection social workers involved in his son’s case expecting to
find her there.

Instead he subjected the new occupant to a terrifying ordeal,
refusing to believe that she did not know where the social worker

He tied up the woman and doused the house in petrol while her
children were upstairs sleeping before eventually leaving. Roberts
was arrested after a car chase.

He pleaded guilty to false imprisonment, possession of articles
with intent to cause damage by fire and possession of an offensive

Damaged by employer’s series of blunders

Mental health social worker Sandra McCulloch* returned from
maternity leave last year to work part-time for a Scottish local
authority’s homelessness team. During a community care assessment
of a woman with mental health problems living in a council-run
hostel, McCulloch made a reference about her recent maternity leave
to a colleague. When the woman was later assessed by a psychiatrist
she said she could kill McCulloch’s baby if she wanted to.  

Two to three weeks passed before the woman was detained in
hospital. During that time, McCulloch claims the woman could have
run into her and her child. Stressed, she was prescribed Valium to
help her sleep. McCulloch believes she has been left even more
damaged by the case because of the way her employer treated

 A series of gaffes began with her line manager “forgetting” to
alert her to the threat posed by the woman and culminated in an
unsatisfactory investigation report into the way the department had
handled her case. 

At that point, the department agreed to investigate her case
further and to put her on “special leave” and take off her record
the six months’ sick leave she had already taken.  

McCulloch is now back on sick leave and is being treated for
anxiety by a community psychiatric nurse. She is on a waiting list
for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and says it is
difficult to imagine ever again being able to interview someone who
is mentally ill or potentially dangerous.   She also feels guilty
about the impact the whole experience has had on her relationship
with her son and her partner.

Harassed out of the service 

In 1994, Clive Plassey* was a probation officer with a London
youth offending team. One of his cases involved a 17 year old who
had committed between 60 and 70 aggravated burglaries. The day the
teenager was sentenced to 10 years, Clive received a message that
he should watch out because the length of the sentence was “his

There was a series of calls over the next week, each more
menacing and explicit. Then Clive’s car tyres were slashed. He was
traumatised by the incidents and worried that something might
happen to his new son.  Clive also felt unsupported. His line
manager had suggested in front of his colleagues that he must have
done something to upset the man’s family, while the borough manager
wanted to discipline him for his “unauthorised absence” while the
police were investigating the incidents. Fortunately for Clive, a
third manager intervened to prevent this and organised counselling
sessions for him, funded by the service.  Although Clive recovered
from the experience, he says he has been left emotionally scarred
by the menacing calls and the attitude of his employer. He left the
service as a result of his experience.

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