Belfast Telegraph

Rape, torture, murder: Grim litany of threats and assaults on Northern Ireland social workers


Carolyn Ewart
Victoria Leonard

By Victoria Leonard

Pregnant social workers in here have been assaulted or told their babies would be killed, while others have been threatened with death, rape and torture.

The shocking incidents are revealed today in a report by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Northern Ireland, which lays bare the challenges faced by social workers here.

It shows that nearly nine in 10 (86%) of respondents had experienced intimidation, three-quarters had received threats, and half had experienced physical violence.

In other cases, social workers have received death threats and bullets in the post, been the target of attempted sexual assaults, and had their families threatened.

Physical attacks, including being kicked in the head and attacked with knives or improvised weapons such as fire extinguishers, are also documented. Several social workers described needing hospital treatment for their injuries.

Two women cited experiences of being assaulted when pregnant.

In total, 220 social workers participated in the survey, of whom 89% worked in the statutory sector, 9% in the voluntary sector and 1% in the private sector. Some 77% were female.

While responses came from staff in several service areas, the report said the data suggests that "violence is a particular problem for staff working in residential child care services" where 93% of respondents reported having been "subjected to physical violence".

One residential child care social worker said they felt they were working "in a domestic violence type situation".

"I experience extreme verbal abuse and threats of physical violence on a daily basis, such as threats that I'll be stabbed or have my head kicked in," they stated.

Worryingly, 42% of respondents reported being physically assaulted at least once in their careers, while 10% reported being assaulted more than 10 times.

Nearly one in 10 respondents (9%) stated that during their career they had been attacked by a dog or other animal, with one social worker revealing she was bitten by a dog while she was pregnant.

Several others were told that their babies would be killed.

Carolyn Ewart

The BASW NI said the responses "suggest incidents of violence are widespread despite more than half (57%) of respondents having received training from their current employer about how to protect themselves when working with intimidating, threatening or violent individuals."

Some incidents included physical assaults such as being pulled to the floor and kicked in the head, or being grabbed by the throat and choked.

Intentional damage to vehicles, such as having car tyres slashed or studded with nails, were reportedly a "common occurrence".

The report also said that respondents, particularly approved social workers working in children and family services and mental health, felt "vulnerable to attack, especially when undertaking home visits with service users on their own".

Several respondents reported being held against their will during home visits.

One worker said: "I worked in family support service in the voluntary sector and was threatened by masked men because I was a gay Catholic. I didn't know the men, but the family I was supporting were known to have paramilitary links. The men had baseball bats, hoods and one had a knife."

The growth of abuse via social media is also highlighted.

Verbal abuse included swearing and being subjected to sectarian or racist abuse.

Those who experienced severe verbal abuse noted feeling "mentally battered".

Other social workers received implied threats, such as service users referring to their home address, car registration or children's schools.

Three-quarters (75%) of respondents had experienced a threat of violence made against them, a family member, an organisation they have worked for, or a colleague.

Over a quarter (27%) experienced a threat made in person or by phone more than 10 times, while 11% had received a threat via social media.

According to the report, a "significant number of the threats reported by respondents included a paramilitary link".

Among the most distressing incidents recounted by respondents were threats to burn down social workers' houses with them and their family inside, or to set fire to a social work office while staff were in the building.

Three-quarters of social workers who experienced intimidation reported a detrimental impact on their mental health, as did 66% of respondents who received threats and 67% of those who were subjected to violence.

Just over three-quarters (77%) who experienced intimidation experienced a detrimental impact on their performance at work, compared to 71% of respondents who had experienced threats or violence.

Three-quarters of social workers who experienced violence reported a detrimental impact on family life and relationships.

This compares to 69% of respondents who had experienced intimidation, and 63% of those who had received threats. As a result of their experiences, some reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and panic attacks.

However, only 25% of those who received a threat or threats, and 38% of those who had experienced violence had taken time off as a consequence.

Most respondents (88%) who were subjected to a threat have reported it to their employer on at least one occasion, but 46% were unsatisfied with the response.

Of the 95% who reported a violent incident to their employer at least once, fewer than half (47%) were satisfied with their employer's response.

The BASW Northern Ireland has published a list of recommendations to help tackle the dangerous situations faced by social workers, including a Department of Health-led public awareness campaign, mandatory skills training for dealing with potentially violent or dangerous situations and the provision of a personal safety alarm or safety apps.

Country manager for BASW Northern Ireland Carolyn Ewart said that employers "need to do more in terms of protecting their employees".

"One of the things we found is people weren't taking time off work unless they had serious physical injury," she said.

"They are finding other ways to cope, but are reporting it has a major impact. If significant progress is to be made, social work employers in all sectors must demonstrate leadership by prioritising protection of their staff.

"Intimidation, threats and violence shouldn't be part of a social worker's role."

No response had been received from the Department of Health or the five health trusts at the time of going to press.

Belfast Telegraph


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