A law signed by Governor Deval Patrick in February calls for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to proscribe new regulations to more effectively defend social workers from violent crime in high-risk areas of the state.
New Law Mandates Heighted Training and Reporting Requirements
The law, entitled An Act to Promote Public Health Through Workplace Safety for Social Work, requires the office to update the state with a new, more streamlined system for recording threats of violence and other violent incidents against social workers and volunteers in that realm of service. In addition, the law requires more proactive measures to train social workers to protect themselves, as well as the establishment of a task force to respond immediately to violent incidents. The legislature requires these new measures to begin within six months. The specificity of the plan targets violence unique to the service social workers provide, and addresses working outside of normal business hours and with individuals in the particular distress that requires such service.
Social Workers Longtime Targets of Violence
The bill is a response to years of concerns over the safety of social workers, often entrusted to ameliorate situations involving domestic violence and individuals suffering from mental health problems. A report at the turn of the century from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that almost half of all non-fatal injuries from violence at the workplace occurred in the context of health care and social services. In 2005, 85.5% of members of the National Association of Social Workers reported experiencing “psychological aggression” at some point in their careers.
Social Worker Deaths Trigger New Statewide Measures
An incident in 2008 involving the stabbing of a therapist during a house call triggered a report in the Boston Globe alleging that, in the previous year, 343 reports of violent threats were on record at the state’s social services department, and the incidents that culminated in injury were nothing short of outrageous: a social worker being punched in a courtroom, another pelted with a rock to the head. The murder of one mental health professional, 25-year-old Stephanie Moulton, in 2011 in the shadow of Governor Patrick’s then-proposed budget cuts for mental health programs triggered a firestormof criticism and reminders that such tragedies are never far out of sight for the state’s social workers.
Social Workers Respond Positively To New Law
The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workerscelebrated the news, equating the funding of workplace safety of social workers to that of other jobs that involve a high risk of injury through other means, such as use of dangerous machinery. Executive director Carol Trustheralded the law as a victory in the name of social workers slain on the job. While it is important to note that the law does not create any new state causes of action or claims for social workers against potential aggressors, it does require protections previously not existing in the law, putting the onus on those running social services to keep their workers safe.