Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Social Worker Killed in Kentucky: Tax Cuts And "Small Government" To Blame?

This is chilling story of the price that our society pays -- or more specifically that workers pay -- for listening to Republican ideologues like Grover Norquist who delight in the prospect of "Shrinking government to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Unfotunately, workers are drowning in that bathtub as well.
A social worker who had taken a 10-month-old boy to his mother's house for a visit was found beaten and stabbed to death, and the baby was apparently abducted, authorities said.

Police found the body of Boni Frederick, 67, at the house on Monday after she failed to return to work. Her car was missing.

Police searched on Tuesday for the missing boy, who was believed to be with his mother, Renee Terrell, 33, and her boyfriend.

The child had been taken from his mother when he was 13 days old because of neglect, police said.

"It's a dangerous job anytime you're taking someone's child away from their parents," Sgt. Dwight Duncan said. "You know how protective parents can be."
When people think about workplace violence, the automatically think of insane postal workers gunning down their co-workers and supervisors. But it was the Boni Fredericks of the world that haunted me throughout my years at AFSCME. The social workers, child support workers and others who had the difficult, unpleasant and dangerous job of enforcing our child protection laws against angry, and often mentally ill family members. They often had to venture into peoples' homes alone, into neighborhoods that even the police feared to enter with guns drawn. And all too often, they paid the ultimate price for doing society's dirty work.

Earlier this year, Sally Blackwell, a program director with Texas Child Protective Services, was found dead in a field. At the time, authorities would not say whether her death was related to her job, although she had received threats. In 2005, Marty Smith, a Washington State crisis responder for the state mental-health system, was killed checking on a schizophenic client whose mother had called to say he wasn't taking his medications.

Threats and violence against social service workers is nothing new, but it rarely rises into the headlines until someone gets killed. A recent study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers found that 55 percent of 5,000 licensed social workers surveyed said they faced safety issues on the job. Sixty-eight percent of them said their employers had not adequately addressed their concerns. A survey in 2002 of 800 workers found 19 percent had been victims of violence and 63 percent had been threatened.

In 1997, federal OSHA issued Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care Social Service Workers to assist health care and social service workers to prevent workplace violence. The guidelines established workplace violence as a legitimate hazard that employers had a responsibility to prevent, and provided specific examples of how to prevent such assaults -- like not working alone, better communication, background checks, etc -- but OSHA refuses to enforce its own recommendations.

And it's not like we haven't been warned. Kentucky social workers have been concerned for some time about their safety:
Social workers and other say Frederick’s death underscores the danger of the job where workers often are confronted by violent and angry adults as they seek to protect children.

“We knew it was only a matter of time,” Patricia Pregliasco, a social worker with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said Tuesday. “We hoped and prayed this wasn’t going to happen.”

Social workers for the past year have been increasingly vocal about their growing caseloads and lack of adequate resources to do their jobs.

State officials are reorganizing the child welfare system to try to help but said they have no additional money for more workers and support staff.

“We’re concerned about our safety,” said Tricia Mack, also a social worker in Jefferson County. “We go out and there’s a lot of times clients make threats.”

Mack and Pregliasco said social workers often go alone to homes.

Family Court judges say their caseload of abused and neglected children is growing and the child welfare system simply doesn’t have resources to meet the needs.

“We’re hemorrhaging cases,’’ said Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald.

Dr. James J. Clark, a social work professor at the University of Kentucky, said that Kentucky – like most states – doesn’t have sufficient resources to handle the increasingly complex cases of child abuse and neglect.

“I think it’s pretty clear that child welfare is pretty under resourced everywhere in the United States,’’ he said. “It’s just not a priority area for a lot of state governments.”
As I wrote following the death of a California mental health worker in 2003, we need to look at the real root causes of these tragedies. When voters, whipped into an anti-tax frenzy by right-wing radio talk/T.V. show wingnuts, as well as politicians seeking to ride the their wave, refuse to see the need to maintain -- or even expand-- government revenues to pay for needed government services, you end up with more needy people getting fewer services from social service workers who don't have the support they need to provide people with the help they deserve, and don't even have the support they need to provide for their own safety.

The result of this breakdown in our ability to treat those who suffer from mental illness is not just a tragedy for them and their families, but for our society as well -- particularly for those members of our society who take on this nation's toughest and most dangerous jobs of providing us with security and providing assistance for people most in need of help -- in a system that refuses to provide the support that they need.

This collective unwillingness to pay for the social services that the people of this country need has ramifications throughout society -- especially for abused children, mental health patients and their families -- and especially for those members of our society who take on this nation's toughest and most dangerous jobs of providing assistance for people most in need of help. The question isn't whether or not we should have higher or lower taxes, or whether we need a big or small government, but who will pay for the things that society demands to make life in this country civilized and livable? We can hide our heads in the sand, but in the meantime, workers like Sally Blackwell, Marty Smith, Boni Frederick have paid for ideological fraud and society's blindness with their lives.

They deserved better.

Related Stories