What the Murder of an Australian Social Worker Can Teach Us

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Yet another social worker has been murdered, underscoring a disturbing trend that has held the attention of social workers worldwide for the last several years. According to James Carmody in Australia’s ABC, a man from Rockingham stabbed 50-year-old Jacqueline Lynn Francis in the neck. The alleged attacker, 37-year-old Shannon Scott Westerman Smith, with the murder.

“It is understood Ms. Francis was the mother of three adult children — two sons and a daughter,” writes Carmody. …WA Mental Health Minister Roger Cook said Ms. Francis was a mental health worker employed by Neami National, which was contracted by the State Government to deliver mental health services.

The circumstances of the murder aren’t clear at this time, but initial reports say that Ms. Cook was visiting a patient at the time of the attack. Tellingly, the article states, “…[I]t was not yet clear what the purpose of the visit was or why she was alone.”

Implied by the statement was that Ms. Cook should not have been alone, contradicting “very clear protocols” relating to home visits. Specifically, more than one staff member is required to be there at all times in situations like this.

“Health Services Union (HSU) secretary Dan Hill told ABC Radio Perth his members had been ‘shaken’ by the incident and the union was worried about safety… ‘Our members who work in these areas will be very saddened by the event but also have a heightened awareness of their own personal safety in these circumstances,’ he said. ‘Our union is concerned for the safety of workers and health professionals, particularly in the mental health sphere.’ Mr Hill said existing safety protocols meant staff almost never performed home visits alone.”

The incident, and reaction to it by the HSU, underscore the grave danger in which social workers can find themselves when contending with emotionally charged situations in which clients — or family members — become agitated, aggressive, and even violent. How many more social workers have to suffer violence, or even be killed, before more protections are enacted for social work personnel? It seems clear that safety protocols alone are not enough, and even having multiple staff members present may not be enough.

If, for example, a very large and aggressive male client becomes violent with a pair of relatively petite female social workers, does the fact that there are more than one social worker present really change the nature of the threat? Obviously, we can create hypothetical scenarios all day long… but at the end of the day, social workers are being attacked and more needs to be done to prevent it.

What do you think? Have you ever felt unsafe on the job? Do your agency’s protocols provide sufficient protection? And has the threat of violence from a client caused you to leave, or think about leaving, the social work field? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.

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