LYNN - One social worker scans the street before leaving her office, checks the back seat of her car before getting in, and drives around in circles instead of heading straight home to make sure she is not being followed. Another looks for all the exits as soon as he enters a building, in case he needs to run for his life.
"No matter how many safety precautions are in place, bad things can happen," said a Lynn social worker who has had to take children away from gun-wielding adults suspected of child abuse.
This month's fatal stabbing of a Wilmington therapist, allegedly by a client in North Andover, thrust before the public eye the kinds of dangers that hundreds of social workers in Massachusetts encounter daily. They endure threats and physical violence, pay nighttime house calls to crack houses and scenes of recent shootings, usually working for meager paychecks. Some, in their effort to protect abused or neglected children, find themselves confronted by agitated and armed adults.
Angelo McClain, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, recalled the time he went to investigate a report that a family with three children had no running water in their house. The mother thought he had come to take away her children.
"I don't know how that mother got from slamming the front door behind me, to the kitchen, to [being] back in my face with the largest butcher knife I've ever seen in my life," said McClain, who has been threatened on the job dozens of times.
Social workers at the department reported that they had been threatened on the job 343 times during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007, said Richard Nangle, a DSS spokesman. In 2006, 19 department workers reported that they had been physically assaulted on the job, and five of those assaults resulted in injuries: for example, when a client punched a social worker in the face in a courtroom, or when someone hit a social worker in the side of the head with a rock while that worker was knocking on a client's door, Nangle said. Some social workers, fearing for their safety, have changed their phone numbers or moved, said Beryl Domingo, who oversees employee safety at the department.
It is not just DSS workers who encounter violence.
Diruhi Mattian, the therapist killed in North Andover on Feb. 6 during a house call to her troubled 19-year-old client, ran a program for mentally ill children and young adults at Family Continuity in Lawrence. That social service agency is funded largely by the state Department of Mental Health and Child and Adolescent Services.
In New York City, a therapist was slashed to death in her office Tuesday night. A man arrested over the weekend and charged with killing her told police he had been looking for another therapist who had institutionalized him 17 years ago.
Eva Skolnik-Acker, who chairs the Norwood-based Committee for the Study and Prevention of Violence Against Social Workers, estimates that between one-third and three-quarters of all social workers nationwide have been threatened, physically assaulted, or had their property damaged. Many social workers do not report violent incidents and often blame themselves when violence occurs, said Skolnik-Acker, whose organization teaches social workers across the country how to stay safe on the job.
The website of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers reports there are 8,500 social workers in the state. About 7,500 of them work for state agencies, including 2,700 for DSS.
Despite the stress and risk associated with the job and the modest salary - most DSS social workers earn between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, according to McClain - the turnover rate among DSS social workers is only 8 percent.
"Part of it is idealism, the desire to help kids, establish families," said one social worker of 10 years, who once had a teenage client threaten to throw a chair at her during a routine interview. Like most other social workers interviewed for this story, she asked not to be identified because of safety concerns.
"My oldest child says, 'You made a bad career choice, Mom,' " said the social worker from Lynn, who has been with the department for 25 years. Her job is to investigate allegations of child abuse as soon as they are reported to the department, sometimes on weekends or in the middle of the night.
"Hopefully we have helped some children and made some difference," she said. "I haven't been doing this for 25 years to make money."
Most organizations that employ social workers offer their staff members strategies to stay safe. In addition to training its workers in safety techniques, DSS has installed fortified glass in the reception areas at most field offices. At the DSS office in Lynn, a police officer sits in the lobby once a week. Social workers schedule meetings with potentially threatening clients for the day the police officer is on duty. The department also instructs its workers to always go in pairs when they investigate reports of child abuse or neglect. If the workers believe that they are at risk, they can ask police officers to accompany them, McClain said.
One social worker, who once had a client loosen the lug nuts on her car while she was at work, avoids letting people approach her from behind while she is making house calls. Another never speaks to clients in their kitchens "because there are a lot of sharp objects." A third always looks at the sizes of shoes sitting by the door to determine how many large adults are in the house.
Despite such precautions, even the most experienced social workers know they are never completely safe. For them, Mattian's killing was the latest gruesome reminder of that.
"What scared me about that was that woman was 53. She wasn't a rookie. She knew what she was doing," said a social worker who has been working for DSS for 19 years. Mattian often provided counseling to clients at their homes.
"If anyone is angry enough . . . .," said the social worker from Lynn. It was early afternoon, several hours before the end of her shift. She managed a smile, and said: "You can't dwell on that."
Anna Badkhen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.