We need zero tolerance of violence against child protection social workers

Susan Hunt, of Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, argues children cannot be protected if workers are not protected themselves

Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

By Susan Hunt

Child protection workers regularly experience extreme violence in their work. This is unsurprising given the nature of the work. What is surprising is the wide-held acceptance of this violence as “just part of the job” by managers, supervisors and governments.

Newly published research, carried out by Community Care and Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, has confirmed this violence has a significant negative impact on workers’ personal and professional lives. It also reinforces established research that shows children are less protected if social workers feel intimidated or threatened.

The research surveyed 590 participants working with children and parents in the UK in 2011 and found 61% reported having been threatened by hostile or intimidating parents in the previous six months.

Impact on social worker lives

The number of violent incidents reported over the course of their career showed:

  • 18% had been physically assaulted, including one participant who was permanently injured from a murder attempt
  • 10% had been held captive in client’s homes
  • 8% of participants had received death threats
  • 4% had been threatened with firearms or knives
  • 1% had been threatened with bombs

Most participants reported that dealing with hostile and intimidating parents had an impact on themselves, their work and/or their families (66%). These impacts had included suffering from stress, anxiety and disordered sleep.

The research also showed that organisational responses to parental hostility, in the form of good supervision and education, were often inadequate. More than half (51%) of all respondents did not have or did not know of any protocols in their organisation on dealing with hostile parents, while more than a third said the support their organisation gave them during an incident was poor or very poor.

Importance of supervision

Supportive supervision and management are necessary to both care for the child protection worker and ensure that they are able to optimally perform the task of protecting children. Effective supervision supports workers emotionally and professionally, while also challenging workers to critically review their reasoning, practice and own actions and behaviour.

There are many losses incurred when intimidated workers are inadequately supervised.

Participants themselves made numerous references to concerns about the impact on the children they were supposed to be protecting.

The most common result is that children are not visited as often as they should be, or at all in some cases, due to workers’ avoidance because of fears of violence and anxiety.

More protection needed

Violence towards other professions, such as nurses, usually occurs in a more public setting, such as hospitals, with other professionals present.

But in child protection work, the threats and violence occur in the parents’ homes. In addition, if such behaviour rewards perpetrators, by workers not visiting the house or performing thorough assessments, this increases the risk of violence and risk to the child.

But in addition to good supervision, the social worker also needs to know their employing organisation will protect them in such cases.

Threatening and violent parental behaviour must be acknowledged formally by organisations in the form of policies and practical guidelines.

Such guidelines should include practical steps to optimise worker safety and adherence to such guidelines should be monitored by supervisors and upper tier managers.

Violence should not be tolerated

Workers should not be sent into high-risk clients’ homes without a supportive co-worker. Parents should be informed that violence will not be tolerated, and what to expect if it occurs. Police involvement should be encouraged in criminal matters or if the worker is at risk of violence as the police have more extensive protective resources and training in working with threatening and violent clients.

Supervisors and managers should attempt to make workers feel valued and protected, by acknowledging and validating workers’ concerns. Violence against workers should not be accepted, it is a criminal act, and workers’ fears should not be belittled or minimised.

Violence against child protection workers also needs to be taken more seriously by the criminal system. The law should require parents to be cooperative, supply the necessary information and access to the child. Scaring away workers through threatened and actual violence should be criminalised.

Many participants in the study pointed out other organisations and professions do not accept violence against their workers as part of the job, and justifiably questioned why it was accepted in child protection social work.

Cost of inaction

It is clear children cannot be adequately protected if workers do not receive support. Not supporting and caring for workers carries substantial societal and economic costs, associated with poor physical and mental health and absenteeism.

It makes ethical and financial sense for society to take responsibility for the workers who have to protect our most vulnerable and traumatised children.

Better training, supervision and support from organisations in those cases where parents are threatening, intimidating and violent will result in better and more successful interventions in child protection cases.

Susan Hunt is the lead researcher on the article ‘If I Feel Like This, How Does The Child Feel?’ Child Protection Workers, Supervision, Management and Organisational Responses to Parental Violence which is published in the Journal of Social Work Practice and can be read here www.tandfonline.com/eprint/J3VAQsTP4SZ7dA7S3ANw/full.


One Response to We need zero tolerance of violence against child protection social workers

  1. jason January 27, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    There should be an absolutely zero tolerance of violence against social workers and indeed all people who work in services. Violence of any sort is entirely unacceptable.

    As well as social workers standing up for themselves by making their zero tolerance policy very clear, they must also learn to stand up better for what is right, which means that as well as being understandably defensive, they need to appreciate that it is never acceptable to be dishonest, or to cover for dishonest colleagues. They need to understand why it is not just violent or bad people who hate social workers.