Martial Arts Training For Social Workers

I was just reading Simeon Brody’s article Self Defense for Social Workers on The Social Work Blog. He wrote this after reading about social workers taking self defence training following the Naomi Hill homicide in Nebraska. He points out that a recent UK poll shows that 2/3 of social workers would like self defence training. This comes as no surprise to me and I think that it is a marvellous idea.

 

Martial arts training saved my ass more than once over the years that I was a cop: the martial arts training that I got on my own, that is. Such training would lead to a lot less violence in police work, as a competent martial artist can control a situation more easily. Not nearly enough effort or money is put into this type of training for cops, but that’s another story. Modern day cops would rely a lot less on force options like tazers if they knew how to use their hands.

 

Martial arts training would certainly have helped social workers in a lot of different dangerous situations that I’ve heard about over the years. You don’t necessarily need to fight: If you train in hold-release techniques you can greatly improve your chances by simply allowing yourself the opportunity to escape.  Hold-release techniques are included in the training that I’ve done for social workers and nurses in the past. But it is only really effective if you practice.  Something that you learned on a weekend workshop somewhere isn’t going to help you years later if you never ever practiced the moves after the workshop ended. 

 

You’re not going to solve your safety problem by carrying “force options” like pepper spray in a purse or pocket either. There are three groups of people that pepper spray won’t work on: 
(1) Mentally disordered people (who can disconnect from the pain),
(2) Drug addicts (most drugs are pain killers), and
(3) Goal oriented people (“What do you mean you’re taking my kid?!”). 
That describes 95% of the people that I dealt with when I worked the Child Abuse Investigation Unit for Vancouver PD (Car 86). And it’s the primary reason why I put my OC spray in my locker and left it there when I was a cop. In addition, if someone starts rushing at you, the only way that you’re going to be able to use it in time is if it is in your hand already. For a cop to get a gun out of a holster and fire a single shot at a person running at them with a knife, that person has to start that run at least 27 feet away.  If they’re closer than that, you’ll never do it. That’s why you see ERT entry teams going into clear buildings with guns out, looking over their sights and scanning for a target. 

As a social worker you’re not going to get a lot of points with your client greeting them at the door with pepper spray in your hand. Martial arts training, on the other hand, can save you. I’ve had people run at me with knives at close quarters three times in my police career. I was able to disarm and arrest all without injury to either of us because I trained to deal with that scenario.

Charles

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

Check the History and Take Cover

How many of you have been faced with this task: trying to get a decompensating mental patient to return to treatment?  It is a task that I am very familiar with, having spent many years as a police officer working in the Mental Health Emergency Services unit of the Vancouver PD.  Many of these clients were resistant to such efforts, since they had no insight into their condition, were paranoid, and often were self- medicating with street drugs.  One of the things that motivated me to write The Safe Approach was to help social workers and nurses to deal with this sort of scenario.

I was reminded of all this when I reviewed an older article from the UK’s The Independent newspaper, “Frenzied Attack on Social Worker“.  This told of dedicated social worker, Jenny Morrison, 50, who went alone to try to convince Anthony Joseph, a schizophrenic male, that he needed to return to psychiatric hospital.  This schizophrenic killed her, stabbing her more than 100 times, breaking the first knife and calmly walking back to the kitchen in the halfway hostel to get another to continue the attack.

Apparently Morrison had gone there alone, and although some other workers had arranged to be there to cover her, they had not shown up.  This demonstrates the paramount importance of taking adequate resources to cover the situation that you expect to face upon arrival.  Going alone to see an unstable and possibly violent client is never a good idea.  Having fellow workers accompany you is better, but in such situations it is always best to have the police with you.

Another incident which underscores the hazards of going to dangerous dwellings alone, is the case of a West Virginia social worker who was murdered when she conducted a solitary home visit, as reported in Tony Rutherford’s article “Social Worker Attacked, Sexually Assaulted, Murdered, Burned”.

Checking collaterals is another issue I covered in The Safe Approach. Before attending to see the client, you need to check any and all sources of information to get as clear an idea as possible of the risks that you are likely to face. The author of the Independent article, Terri Judd, reports “Mr Joseph had not picked up his medical prescription for five months and had told fellow residents at the social services hostel that he was selling his pills to “clubbers”, while taking a cocktail of heroin, crack cocaine and ecstasy himself. Three weeks before the attack, care staff were well aware that he had stopped taking his medication, yet he remained free to come and go as he pleased, the court heard.” The staff had specifically asked for assistance, because Joseph’s behavior had deteriorated dramatically since his release from the psychiatric hospital. He was described as abusive, as having paranoid delusions about being pursued by fascists, as being “tortured by dark spirits”. Joseph made no secret of the fact that he did not believe he was mentally ill and that if returned to the psychiatric hospital, he would be tortured. All of these behaviors are ‘red flags’ that should have led to the police being brought along to the scene for back up.

Usually safety problems result from a combination of factors. Training may fail to accurately reflect reality. Perceptions of the true risk may not match the actual risks involved. A study by Carmel and Hunter in 1990 found that frequent training can improve the likelihood of avoiding assault.

Yet workers may receive no training in safety considerations at all (*). More often than not they are expected to pick up whatever they need to know on the job. Workers become complacent in the knowledge that most people in the profession reach retirement without ever being in a potentially dangerous position. Day in and day out, workers investigate situations where nothing happens and complacency sets in. They may approach a situation casually, hastily, and with over-confidence, as “nothing ever happened before”. They begin to assume that “nothing ever will happen”. And then it does.

Charles Ennis 

(*) US Dept. of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration; (1996) Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Workers OSHA 3148-1996. pg 9.

 

 

 

 

 

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