Thursday, February 17, 2005

Precautions Save the Life of Child Protective Services Worker

When I was at AFSCME, one of the jobs highest on my list of public employee "jobs-I'd-never-want-to-have" was child protective services worker. These are the people whose job it is to investigate some of the most pathetic, sickening cases of child abuse you'd never want to think about, and often have to take children away from parents who were abusive, mentally ill, or just plain unable to cope with the lives they had been dealt.

Needless to say, parents weren't always appreciative of the efforts of these workers, and it was all-too-common for child protective service workers to be threatened or attacked. Sometimes even their families were threatened. But back in the 1980's and early 1990's it was generally extremely difficult to convince their management that they needed to travel in pairs, and sometimes to be accompanied by an armed law enforcement official.

The issuance of OSHA's Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care Social Service Workers issued in 1997 established workplace violence as a legitimate hazard that employers had a responsibility to prevent, and provided specific examples of how to prevent such assaults.

That history apparently paid off yesterday in Washington State:

A machete-wielding father was fatally shot yesterday after he attacked a veteran Child Protective Services (CPS) worker in the worst-known case of on-the-job violence at the state child-welfare agency.

The CPS worker, accompanied by a co-worker and a Ferry County sheriff's deputy, was investigating a complaint that three children were living in a home near Curlew without running water or electricity when she was attacked by the children's father, State Patrol trooper Jim Hays said.

Bryan S. Russell, 35, pummeled one of the social workers with a machete and a 2-by-4 as she lay on the ground before the sheriff's deputy shot and killed him, Hays said.

The worker, whose name was not released, suffered cuts, a broken arm and wrist and a possible skull fracture. She was admitted to Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane for a CAT scan.

"It appears it (the shooting) saved this worker's life," Hays said.

The attack chilled social workers across the state. State policy prohibits the 2,000-person child-welfare staff from carrying pepper spray or guns but encourages workers to bring along a co-worker or call police when their work puts them in potential jeopardy. The agency does require workers to bring an officer along if they're going to take a child into state custody, and it's common in rural Washington to have an officer on hand during a CPS investigation.

The assaults and the threats of not uncommon.
Current and former CPS staff say the attack is the most serious in memory, although investigators say death threats are routine and less-serious assaults happen sporadically.

A survey of several hundred Montana child-welfare workers, published in 1994 in the journal Child Welfare, found that one in 10 had been hit on the job in the preceding year, and a third of the workers had faced death threats. A quarter of the surveyed workers feared their own families could face job-related violence.

Wilson, the retired CPS administrator, said his own survey of staff in southwest Washington found many suffered insomnia, anxiety and stress-related stomach pain. "Well over half had been threatened - their lives or their family," he said.
And the damage is not just physical. Social service and child protective service workers suffer the typical symptoms of severe stress, suffering insomnia, anxiety and stress-related stomach pain.

Unfortunately, despite the frequency of assaults and threats, budget cuts threaten to undermine worker safety:

At most of CPS's state offices, staff members work behind locked doors, and some have security guards. But Seattle's King West office on lower Queen Anne recently lost its security guards in a budget cut, worrying some staff, said John Birnel, a union shop steward and social worker.

"It gives people in child-protection, where the situations are a lot more dicey, a pause for concern," he said.

Related Stories

Doctor Killed by Mental Patient 11/25/2003

Who really killed Dr. Erlinda Ursua? December 2, 2003