Client Violence Focus of Workshop for Social Workers

Release Date: May 1, 2006 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The April 14 death of Sister Karen Klimczak, a lifetime peace activist who lived and worked in a Buffalo halfway house and who was killed by one of the parolees staying there, points to a disturbing trend that impacts anyone who works in social services: client violence.

The risk of violence is a reality for most social workers in practice today, says Christina E. Newhill, a nationally regarded social work educator, and it is vitally important that those in the caring professions learn to minimize those job-related dangers.

Newhill, associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book "Client Violence in Social Work Practice," will present a workshop titled "Risk Assessment, Violent Clients and Practitioner Safety" from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 12 in the Holiday Inn Amherst, 1881 Niagara Falls Blvd.

The fee for the workshop is $99; participants are eligible for continuing education credit. For more information, go to, email or call 716-829-3939 ext. 154.

Sponsored by the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, the workshop will look at the latest knowledge about the nature of, and motivation behind, incidents of client violence, and teach skills for engaging and working with violent clients and strategies to prevent violence in the office and field settings.

According to a survey Newhill conducted of 1,600 social workers, 58 percent reported one or more incidents of violence during their career, whether it is property damage, threat of violence, attempted assault or actual physical assault.

The survey found that among professionals working in the criminal justice system, 79 percent report experiencing violence. The survey also showed that male social workers are more likely to experience violence than women, although women tend to worry about it more, she said, adding that violent incidents "take a significant emotional toll."

Newhill's workshop will show participants how to recognize risk factors associated with violent behavior, as well as develop skills to defuse and prevent violence.

Many risk factors can be determined by simply reviewing the client's record. Younger clients are more likely to be violent than older ones. Males are more likely to be violent than women, although women are becoming more so, she said.

"Certain psychiatric symptoms are a warning -- paranoia, command hallucinations, violent fantasies, as well as people with anger toward authority or who blame others for their problems," Newhill said.

It's important to look at the client from an historical perspective. "Do they have a history of recent or frequent violence? Do they have a history of being abused or of witnessing domestic violence?" she asked. A work history of continually being fired or of getting into fights with people also can be a clue.

In an agency setting, the layout of the office can be used to minimize the risk of violence by furnishing it with furniture that is heavy and difficult to move and use as a weapon.

"Most injuries occur because the client grabs the thing nearest to them," Newhill said. "Avoid having anything around that could be used as a weapon -- stapler, letter opener, tape dispenser -- put them all away and out of sight."

She also recommends that practitioners sit by the exit if the room has only one, or better yet, have two exits so the client can leave if things become too intense emotionally.

Field interviews present a different set of conditions, Newhill said.

"When you're going on a home visit, sign out and leave information on where you are going and when you'll be back. Carry a cell phone." Some agencies, she noted, have begun to use global positioning systems during field visits.

She said it's important to listen to your gut instincts, and to leave if you get the feeling things are not going right. And don't conduct interviews in the kitchen, where a variety of weapons are easily at hand.

The main thing, according to Newhill, is that agencies need to increase awareness of client violence. Workshop participants will receive handouts and other training materials that they will be able to take back to their agencies to share with coworkers.

"I'm hoping participants will walk away from the workshop with tools they can use in practice. Training makes a huge difference," she said.

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