Dealing With Stalkers

Linda, the creator of the Fried Social Worker Blog wrote to me asking:  “Do you have any suggestions for social workers who are concerned about clients stalking them? A few days ago a colleague was telling me of her experience of being stalked by an ex-client. I started searching the web for good resources and most of the stuff out there is for victims of domestic violence, not the practitioners who work with them. It occurs to me that in the increased dialogue about social worker safety these days, stalking is an issue that’s not being addressed.”


I know that this is a major issue for a lot of people.  It will be no surprise to social workers that according to the Stalking Resource Center, more than one million women and 400,000 men are stalked annually in the US.  The average length of stalking is 1.3 years, although most situations last about a month. 


First of all, treat all stalking as a serious and legitimate threat. Involve the police and your employer right away so that they can support you.  Get the police to attach a premise history to your home and work address.  Modern CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) systems automatically display hazards and histories of addresses to call takers and dispatchers:  this means that if you call in and can’t say anything, the CAD will automatically list the history attached to your address.  This allows the call taker and the dispatcher to instantly see that it is you calling and that you’re having a problem with a stalker, listing his/her particulars and the address history.  This will help them to respond swiftly and appropriately even if you are unable to tell them what is happening.


Ensure your home phone number is unlisted with your local phone provider.  Program 911 on your cell phone to speed up emergency response.  Remember when calling 911 to always give your address first.  That way, if the police dispatcher knows nothing else, at least they will know where to send their police units.  Unlike land lines, cellular phone calls do not reveal your exact location to the police dispatcher.  All that the call taker and dispatcher sees on their screen is a display showing the location of the repeater tower the signal is coming in to and the azimuth that it is coming from.  In the US, cellular phone providers are now including a GPS locator in cell phones that helps the police narrow down your location, even if it doesn’t provide your exact location.  If you are using VOIP as a phone provider, be aware that the address that is displayed to the police dispatch is always your home phone location.  If you are using VOIP to call 911 from anywhere else you need to either temporarily reprogram the location or make sure that you tell the 911 operator where you really are.  Otherwise the police will be responding to your home address even if that isn’t where you actually are.


When you find yourself plunged into a crisis situation, you will fall back on whatever you have planned and/or rehearsed.  If you don’t plan for contingencies, then when things suddenly get ugly you may fall into a basic “deer in the headlights” response that isn’t a safe or effective response to the situation.  Developing safety and escape plans will help you to overcome this.  Develop and implement a safety plan which outlines to your friends and employer what you plan to do if you have to leave your home in an emergency.  Plan escape routes from your home and office and rehearse them.  Select safe destinations that you can use in emergency situations and have more than one.  Advise your friends and employer where these safe havens are located.  This will help you stay in control during an escape. 


Put together a “ready bag” at home packed with all of your important documents (driver’s license and registration, birth certificates, social security/SIN cards, insurance papers, extra cash, address book, prescription medications, spare clothing, cell phone, etc).  Keep it hidden in a place where you can access it quickly.  You could also leave extra money, spare keys and copies of important documents at your safe havens with people that you trust.


Give your co-workers, friends and family a “code word” that you can use to let them know that you need immediate assistance.  Sometimes it is difficult to talk openly on the phone in front of the abuser and you’ll want a way to tell them you’re in trouble without tipping off the stalker who is listening.  A code that my social worker and nursing partners used in the field to indicate to me and one another that we had spotted a hazard and were preparing to escape/respond was to start referring to one another by our surnames instead of our given names as we usually did.  This isn’t obvious to listening suspects and could be a useful clue to your office worker, friend or family member on the other end of the phone that you need the police immediately.


When you leave the office, make sure that they know where you are going and when you expect to return.  Tell them your estimated time of arrival and expected route.  Your office should have a display board on which this information can be recorded so that your movements can be monitored and a person responsible for monitoring it.  That way if you do not show up or return on time, someone can start checking up on you.  Make sure that your vehicle doors are locked at all times.  Always check in and around your vehicle before entering it.  Always check around the parking area before committing to a parking space.  Avoid walking alone, especially at night or in isolated areas.  Get police back up to cover you at problem locations.  This will help to discourage possible threats lurking in the area when you arrive.  It will also allow them to cover your departure, making sure that no one attempts to follow you.  They can also escort you to and from the place that you are visiting and escort your vehicle if necessary.


If you become aware of someone following you, immediately call for police assistance with your cellular phone.  Pass on the vehicle license number, description, number of persons visible in the suspect vehicle and your location and direction of travel.  Stay on well lighted and well traveled roadways and avoid stopping if you can.  Head for a place such as a police station or public building where security personnel can see you and assist you (these locations should be part of your escape route planning).  Flash your headlights and honk your horn to attract attention if necessary.


Maintain a journal detailing all incidents of stalking.  Include dates, times, locations and a complete description of the stalker.  Detail all that was said and the actions that you took.  List all witnesses.  You should get an answering machine at home that will not only allow you to screen incoming calls (and often identify the caller) but will also record threats made over the phone.  Use the telephone provider’s ID function (such as *57) to identify the phone number that the stalker is calling from and note this down.  Get your local phone provider to help you track the origin of unsolicited calls:  Usually they can set up a “trap line” to capture this information.  This will all be useful evidence for the police in court.


Get a protection order.  These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can be criminal or civil, temporary or permanent.  In most jurisdictions violation of such orders results in arrest and jail time and/or fines.  Even if the order is civil, most jurisdictions treat violations as a criminal matter leading to prosecution and incarceration.


In my book, The Safe Approach, I have included comprehensive safety tips and suggestions, as well as hold release techniques, when it becomes necessary to escape from a violent assailant.  In addition, the following websites contain comprehensive statistics and resources about this problem:


Stalking Resource Center

Network for Surviving Stalking 

AWARE (Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment) 

AARDVARC (An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection)  


Charles Ennis

Dealing Safely With Emotionally Disturbed People

I spent many years in the Mental Health Emergency Services unit of VPD getting mentally ill people safely to treatment facilities. For nine years I managed to do this without ever harming a client, at the same time always keeping the nurses and social workers that I worked with out of harm’s way. Now I’d like to share some of my experience with social workers and nurses to keep them safe in the field.

Before you leave the office, always start by reviewing all available collateral information on the person you intend to assess. This should include police history (criminal record, call history) as well as mental health/hospital records (history of treatment, behaviour when ill). Try to identify patterns and “baseline” behaviour. Do they have common delusions such as the idea that someone is projecting energy/radio waves into them? Maybe they’re paranoid? Look for precautions that they may have taken to “protect” themselves from these perceived threats. Those countermeasures may constitute a threat to your safety.

Always be looking for obvious signs of use of prescription or non-prescription drugs, as well as the use of alcohol or street drugs.  Many mentally ill people attempt to self medicate.  Many psychiatric meds should not be mixed with alcohol consumption.  Many of these attempts to self medicate only exacerbate their illness.  If you can, get the person to show you their meds.  This will give you an idea what it is they are taking, as well as how much.  If the label on the bottle containing a month’s supply of pills is dated the beginning of the month and it is now the end of the month with the bottle nearly full, it is a clear indication that they aren’t compliant with their medications.  The label on the medications also will give you an idea who the GP or psychiatrist of record is.

If the client admits that they’ve discontinued meds, try to find out why.  Many medications have side effects which cause the patient to give up on them, such as drowsiness or weight gain.  Ask if they’ve had allergic reactions. Often they’ll give you accurate information on allergies.  Many patients with a history of non-compliance will respond to my question about allergies by listing every psychiatric medication they’ve ever been prescribed.  This is a pretty clear indication that they aren’t going to cooperate with the medical plan without supervision.

Many emotionally disturbed people can pull it together for a short time in an attempt to cover their illness and avoid apprehension.  A little patience and persistence can often pay off as most of them cannot maintain this front for long.  It is a bit like asking them not to blink.  Sooner or later it will out.

I’ve always found it useful to ride in the ambulance and/or continue the assessment at the hospital.  Typically as soon as the client realizes that “the game is up”, they will drop their guard and let out all kinds of useful information and behaviours.  All this information should be carefully documented to assist people trying to follow up later.

Be direct.  Ask the client up front if they are suicidal, or having thoughts of harming themselves or others.  It is amazing how many social workers and police officers find this question so difficult to ask.  Remember, you’re there to help them and this information is vital. Ask them if the client feels safe.  Do they feel a need to protect themselves?  If so, what measures have they taken to protect themselves?  This will give you an idea if they are paranoid and, if so, how severe the paranoia is.  It also alerts you to dangerous behaviours and situations to guard against.

Ask if the client hears voices.  If so, are these “voices” telling the client to do certain things (command hallucinations)?  Does the client believe that they are getting messages from the TV, radio, or newspaper?  Ask if the client believes that they can read your thoughts and/or if they think that you can read theirs.  Watch for blocking behaviour and/or latency of response.  If they take their time responding to you, they may be responding to internal stimuli.  Do they appear to be looking at things or responding to stimuli no one else perceives? 

Safety is an ongoing reassessment of your surroundings and the persons that you are in contact with.  If you pay attention to the things I’ve listed here, you’ll be in good shape to keep yourself and your client safe.


Charles Ennis


Det. Ennis assisting an EDP in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver

Det. Ennis assisting an EDP in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver




Planning and Preparation

A situation that I’ve seen play out time and again in the field is where the social worker or nurse does the right thing and requests police back up.  The police arrive, the social worker and police basically introduce themselves and then everyone troops into the house.  No one stops to explain the purpose of the visit to one another.  No one explains what his or her expectations are.  No one discusses the history of the family or contingency plans should things suddenly go “pear shaped”.

Far too often when things do get violent, social workers find themselves in the line of fire.  Having the police backup there helps, but if the visit is planned properly then it is the police who deal with the violence (which is their mandate) and the social worker escapes unscathed.  I remember one case in particular from my experience at Vancouver PD, where the first thing that the police officer in the home thought of when things got violent was the safety of the child:  he picked up the child and ran out of the house.  Unfortunately this left and unarmed social worker facing an irate parent.  This shouldn’t have happened.  It should have been the social worker leaving with the child and the cop making sure that happened.

I was reminded of the potential for violence in such situations when reviewing a case from Washington state back in 2005, where a Department of Social and Health Services social worker was attacked by a male with a machete and a club (for details see memo from Anna Kim-Williams of the Governor’s Communication Office, “Attack of Child Protection Services Worker”).

Time taken to discuss and plan before entering a risky situation is always time well spent.  When things get violent you will instinctively fall back on whatever you have planned or rehearsed beforehand.  If you have done neither, then you’re going to be standing there like a deer in the headlights, and that’s not a good survival response.

Charles Ennis