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

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Workers Want Safety Training

In “Is Social Care Work Safe?” I was reading the comments of fellow social care workers responding to the death of Philip Ellison:

Lins:  “When is something going to be done to protect workers?  In Children Services we are told not to go out alone if there is a potential for violence, but how many times, due to staff shortages, have we taken the chance?  If it was a police officer would they go out alone?”

Well said Lins.  As a former cop I would most certainly confirm that we wouldn’t go to a violent situation alone.

Anne:  “Managing conflict is essential training for any isolated worker.  As is appropriate lone working policies and procedures.  The real danger is when a violent/aggressive incident arises out of the blue.”

As they too often do.  Which is why we ought not to be having social workers out there alone if it can be helped.  The real danger is always there, even if it only seems to be coming “out of the blue”.  The fact is it rarely does.  Too often the clues are there to warn us but we don’t attend to them.

Preeta:  “The people who you see on doubled up visits have usually done or said something to warrant joint visits, it is sometimes impossible to gauge that you are walking into a high risk situation if you have had no warning that a service user is relapsing (for example).”

Most of the time there is a clue to warn you.  Safety awareness is an ongoing reassessment of your situation.  Safety is about 75 % attitude, 15 % skill, 5 % physical, and only 5 % luck.

Brian:  “It is long past the time for society to acknowledge that those of us who work in the social care profession have the right to go about our duties without the fear of abuse and assault.”

I totally agree with Brian’s assessment.  I came to that conclusion eleven years ago and went on to try to do something about safety for my colleagues in the helping professions.

A study cited in Brody’s article support’s Brian’s view.  This study, which estimated that 50,000 social care staff are attacked in Britain each year, showed that two thirds of social workers wanted some sort of self defence training.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but it requires an enormous investment in time and money to make a large group of social workers competent enough in self defence that they can rely upon this skill.  You can’t become a martial artist in a weekend workshop.  I point this out in the hold-release section of my book The Safe Approach.  Brody admits that he once argued that “self-defence training could do more harm than good, if it increased confidence without developing skills to a level where they would be useful in real life.”  There you go.  However most of the safety problem can be dealt with by recognizing the escalating situation and getting out before it turns to violence.  Basic principle from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:  The best general is the one who wins without fighing.

Charles Ennis

Injuries to Social Workers from Client Assault

Robin Ringstad Ph.D, LCSW, has an interesting CSWE APM power point presentation showing statistics on client violence to social workers.

Safe Approach Introduction

It is amazing how little effort has been expended by some agencies to train field workers how to survive violent encounters with clients they encounter in the field. Proper training, planning and preparation can prevent many violent incidents from occurring and can enhance their ability to survive violent encounters. Depending on luck is a poor substitute for taking constructive measures to prevent a violent encounter. The current state of knowledge of safety procedures makes your ability to stay safe in the field greater than ever. Yet more effort is likely to have gone into the counseling and support that a worker receives after an assault than that worker or that worker’s agency devoted to worker safety before the assault.

When we first started doing safety training for social workers and public health nurses in 1996 there were concerns from the field administrators the material being presented might incite fear in the workers, resulting in them never leaving their office. One of the first things that we do in our sessions is to ask the attendees to take a moment to write down past work situations where they found themselves in dangerous or violent situations. Many of them come up with personal accounts of risk and injury. In other words, these people have already experienced the dangers of the job. They are attending classes like ours because they wanted strategies and techniques that allow them to overcome the fears and anxieties that they already have experienced on the job so that they can continue to do those valuable jobs.

You can’t make yourself safe unless you have a true appreciation of the risks involved. Only then can you adequately prepare for them. The best defense for any field worker is to be prepared before violence happens. This often makes it possible for you to avoid potential violence altogether, and can substantially reduce the number of incidents that escalate to the point of violence. The old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ certainly applies here.

Your body will often react to impending danger before you become consciously aware of it. When suddenly confronted with violence, your body will automatically revert to an instinctive “fear-fight-flight mode.” It has been our experience that workers often dismiss the physiological symptoms they are having when they begin to feel unsafe and attempt to continue their interview or assessment. They fail to trust their instincts. If you become aware that you are experiencing these symptoms you should begin looking for the cause. If you ignore them, you may end up being surprised by the client’s violent outburst. Under these circumstances you will instinctively revert to the way you have trained. If you have neither rehearsed nor planned a response, you will be left with a basic “startle response” which is rarely an appropriate response to a violent outburst.

Yet most social workers have nowhere near the training and equipment that a police officer has when responding to such situations. A client can decide when, where, and whom to attack, on grounds that may be totally irrational and indiscriminate. On the other hand, moral and psychological considerations that inhibit quick, impulsive action usually influence the worker.

Clients know you won’t make the first violent move. You may not want to use violence. You may find violence morally distasteful. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the client will not share your views. Faced with arrest, hospitalization, or with the removal of their children, clients may feel that they have nothing to lose. They may accept violence as a natural risk of their lifestyle. When they act, they are only thinking of themselves.

Usually there will be some clue or danger sign warning of violence. Something about the client’s behavior will indicate his or her intent. Learning the body language of violent clients is essential to your safety. You should watch for displays of pre-assaultive behavioral that will warn you of an impending attack. 

Safety is a matter of on going assessment of your surroundings and making timely decisions based on that assessment. Safety is a matter of constantly reviewing your actions to learn from your mistakes. The first step toward greater personal safety in the field is knowing where to draw the line. Violent behavior on the part of the client may be understandable, but it is never acceptable.

The Safe Approach

The Safe Approach