Planning for Safety
Social workers often meet clients for the first time during times of crisis – on what could be the “worst day” of the client’s life. Workers must always consider issues of safety when conducting initial investigations. Strategies can be used to keep clients, family members, and workers safe. These strategies begin with preparation for a home visit and include environmental and interpersonal awareness as well as verbal and non-verbal techniques to de-escalate tense situations. A risk reduction plan allows the worker a measure of confidence in assessing safety related issues so that the main focus of a visit can center on the needs of clients and their families.
There is no single plan that can eliminate risk nor is there any one “right” way to deescalate tense situations. Guidelines are offered with the recognition that workers must assess the validity of a particular suggestion based on the individual circumstance they are dealing with. Workers must use their clinical and intuitive judgment to determine the best course of action in any given situation. If instinct or professional judgment indicates that a particular strategy will increase the possibility of harm, then the worker should discard that option.
A Framework for Reducing Safety Risks
APS workers approach their work with vulnerable adults and their families from a client-centered perspective that is based on human relationships, positive regard, empathy, and a belief in the possibility for change. This approach to working with clients includes a responsibility to and respect for the client, honoring client dignity, and developing plans that are client-directed. Keeping this framework in mind helps to establish safety strategies that are driven, not by suspicion, but by awareness and a desire to maintain a safe environment for everyone involved.
Before the Visit
- Safety Assessment – Prior to a visit
- Accept responsibility to plan for safety – risk exists.
- Learn about the home environment and neighborhood.
- Review client files to determine potential risks.
- Develop a Safety Action Plan
- Know agency protocols.
- Conduct visits with a co-worker or law enforcement when appropriate.
- Think through scenarios and outcomes from similar visits and adapt plans accordingly.
- Consult with a supervisor, if needed.
- Post a schedule of your home visits with addresses and phone numbers.
- If the schedule changes, let someone at the office know about the change.
During the Visit
- Safety Assessment
- Notice the neighborhood environment and make a plan of action for entering and exiting your destination.
- Notice the home environment.
- Be aware of who is in the home or may be coming to the home.
- Pay attention to your intuition and “gut level” feelings. These are often the first warning signs of danger. Leave if you feel threatened even if “nothing happened.” You can always come back later with a co-worker or law enforcement.
- Be aware of cultural biases, stereotypes, and prejudices that may impact judgment.
- If the client or someone in the home denies access, or is threatening and angrily demands that you leave, you should leave immediately. If you feel the client is endangered, return later with law enforcement assistance.
- A word of caution – don’t get carried away
- Most families are not a threat.
- Safety assessments and action plans are useful because they promote awareness and reduce fear so workers can focus on helping.
(Children’s Services Practice Notes. Vol.3,No.2, July 1998.)
Safety Planning Tips for Home Visits
- Go early in the day to high-crime neighborhoods.
- Schedule the most challenging case first.
- Know perpetrator’s schedule.
- Know when home health aide is at the house.
- Know client’s schedule (day program, senior center, ongoing medical treatment).
- Leave your schedule with supervisor and coworkers.
- Discuss emergency signal plan with supervisor or coworkers.
- Have emergency numbers available.
- If meeting law enforcement, wait for them to arrive.
- If a client or someone else in the home denies access, or is threatening and angrily demands that you leave, you should leave immediately. If you feel the client is endangered, ask for law enforcement assistance and return later with them.
- Be alert and aware of what is occurring, such as verbal and non-verbal communication, level of tension, etc. Keep in touch with your intuition and “gut level feelings.” If you start feeling nervous or afraid, even if “nothing happened,” make an excuse and leave. Come back later with another APS worker.
Car / Travel
- Use government car when possible to avoid hostile clients learning your license plate number or damaging your car.
- Have your insurance # and AAA # handy.
- Keep maps in car; know where you are going. Avoid wandering on foot through rough neighborhoods or apartment complexes looking for the client’s residence.
- Have a full tank of gas; make sure spare tire is in good repair; make sure you have a blanket, jumper cables, water, and shovel.
- Lock doors and windows.
- Don’t open window more than 2-3 inches to talk to strangers.
- Carry keys in your hand. Have extra car door key separate from other keys.
- Choose a safe path to your car.
- Make sure valuables are not visible – lock them in the trunk when you leave.
- If you think you are being followed, drive to the police or fire station or to a public building.
- Cell phone (fully charged)
- Hand cleaner gel
- Dog biscuits
- Dress practically and sensibly.
- Maintain a low profile.
- Leave jewelry at home. Take only what you can afford to lose.
- Do not carry a purse into the home.
- Keep hands free – no unnecessary parcels or bags
De-escalating Tense Situations
- There is no “right” technique that will diffuse tension in every situation. The goal, however, is to help the angry person reduce the amount of tension he/she is feeling and gain control of their aggressive actions. Model calm behavior both verbally and with body language.
- One of the most important things to do, and admittedly difficult, is to remain calm. Staying calm is not always possible, but it is necessary to continue to think about the options available and choose the best ones.
- It is easier to act calmly when you remember that the anger comes from the situation and is not directed personally to you. Defensiveness on your part validates the angry behavior and increases the tension.
- Be sensitive and alert to differences in cultural expressions and beliefs.
- Remain self-confident and pleasant.
- Maintain client’s hope.
- Support normal emotional responses.
- Show respect, use empathic listening skills, and follow the angry persons lead by asking “what do you need from me?” Talk about the frustration or problem that has come up, reflect feelings and behaviors, and take responsibility for your mistakes.
- Speak in a calm, direct, and respectful tone. Keep the pitch and level of your voice evenly modulated. Slow down your speech and speak clearly, simply, and directly so the other person can understand you despite their anger. Keep sentences short and to the point and repeat, if necessary. A person who is upset may have difficulty processing and understanding what is being said and may need to hear it more than one time.
- Using phrases such as “calm down” or “take it easy” are NOT good ideas as they suggest that you do not understand why the other person is so upset.
- Interpret behavior cautiously. “You look like you are getting more upset, is that right?”
- If hostility is decreasing, do not interrupt.
- If hostility is increasing, gently interrupt. “I need to say something right now.”
- Offer choices such as talking later or agreeing on a cooling off period. Allow the person to save face – give the person a way out.
- Distracting a person or changing the topic may be helpful. However, it may further anger people if they realize you are diverting them.
- Don’t use humor – when people are angry it can easily be misinterpreted.
- Use nonthreatening, non-confrontational body language.
- Move slowly; keep hands visible.
- Avoid placing hands on hips or crossing arms over chest.
- Avoid physical closeness; do not touch an angry person.
- Reduce eye contact – don’t stare or glare.
- Position yourself to the side of the person so you are not squarely facing them. Do not turn your back to the angry person.
- Let them know any physical movements you are going to make before you do it. For instance, “I’m going to use my phone to call my supervisor to see if she can help with getting what you need.”
- Acknowledge the client’s option to end the visit if they are feeling out of control.
- Do not stand between the person and the door.
Exiting a Tense Situation
- Leave the situation if you feel threatened. You might state that you are leaving and provide a reason or you may “remember” something you left in your car and simply exit.
- If a situation escalates, try to keep your anxiety in check and above all keep thinking to review possible options and choose the best one.
- If you have attempted to stabilize the situation and things still seem to be escalating, leave and/or get help.
- Recognize that leaving a tense situation that is escalating is a viable and professional action. It also allows the client time to maintain their dignity.
- Ask for a cooling off period or to reschedule.
- Even if a person seems to be calming down, give him/her time and physical space. It takes about 30 -40 minutes to physiologically calm down from anger. Remain alert and sensitive to the person and his/her state of mind.
Source: Module 16 – The Initial Investigation by NAPSA