By: Justin Miller, MSW
Boni Frederick: 67 years old. Social Service Aide. I did not know her, but I respected her just the same—her work, her accomplishments, her life. She was a partner, if you will: A partner in ensuring the protection of the greatest gift that humankind has to offer, a child. The full circumstances of the tragedy that occurred on October 16, 2006 may never be known. What is known is that our colleague is gone. Her presence, in body, will never grace another office or work with another child. Her family will never be able to hug or kiss her, and we are left with questions. Why? How could someone do this to someone with so much compassion, so much love, and so much life? And we must also ask ourselves: Could this heinous act have been prevented? I say again, could the murder of a social service aide while conducting her daily duties have been prevented? And are we, as social and human service workers, safe now?
I am an MSW student at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, where I am completing a placement at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS). Critical reflection is a necessary component of any field placement; only through this process can TRUE learning occur. My current placement affords me a plethora of opportunities for growth and critical reflection—none more so than the murder of a social service aide while conducting a home visit in Henderson County, Kentucky. This tragedy caused me to question the ability and willingness of the agency to ensure the safety and protection of its workers and field students alike.
To fully understand the impact of this incident, the reader must first understand the context in which it occurred. Boni was murdered while transporting a child in foster care to a visit with his mother. According to various news sources, the mother of the child had been informed that her child, a two-year-old, was going to be placed for adoption. Exact circumstances are unclear, but it is known that Boni’s co-workers contacted law enforcement when Boni and the child did not return to the office. The police went to the home where the visit was to take place and found Boni dead. The mother, the child, and a male companion were missing.
The murder of a social service worker while in the field of duty is not surprising. After all, we go into homes on a daily basis. We never know what or who is in the home. The fact that we have even been called to the home, in most cases, indicates that we are walking into a potentially dangerous situation. Even in what may appear to be the safest of situations, such as conducting home visits with potential foster parents, we simply don’t know what we may encounter.
To evaluate the dangers of such home visits, one need look no further than the procedure. Someone phones into a central hotline with a concern. We, the workers, go out. Someone wants a home evaluation to become a foster parent. We go out. Night or day, rain or shine, known or unknown, we go out. Hopefully, we engage respectfully with clients. But our jobs often require that we ask questions, we prod, and we elicit responses. If the answer is not what we were seeking, or if the responses are not detailed enough, we ask more questions. More prodding. People become agitated with us; we become agitated ourselves. We stop, we rewind, and we try again.
We usually do not even think about our safety, although we should. We become so consumed with the well-being of others that we place ourselves at risk. And what do we get? Meager salaries, little respect, and agency administrations that seem to take little interest in the safety of their workers. Not enough, definitely, not enough.
Reflection is a big part of the curriculum at Spalding University. As such, we are taught to explore personal feelings surrounding our placement duties and experiences. My feelings regarding social worker safety, and in particular the murder of a colleague, are very fervent. Grief, anger, confusion, and frustration are among the myriad feelings that invade my being. Moreover, I am forced to critically evaluate these feelings and the impending action that needs to be taken.
What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Am I, as a field student, safe? Are my colleagues safe? Could it have been prevented, and if so, why wasn’t it? Or for that matter, do people even care about a dead social service worker? When it is no longer in the news and we get caught in the hustle and bustle of new clients and office politics, will we remember? Will we remember our safety? Will we remember what little has been done to protect us? Will we remember Boni?
Reflections involving field placements are saturated by our own experiences as they relate to the incidents on which we are reflecting. Race, age, gender, and other factors have significant impact on what we take away from field learning experiences. Likewise, the culture of social work also has a profound bearing on our critical reflections. Professional organizations such as the Radical Social Workers, National Association of Black Social Workers, North American Association for Christians in Social Work, and the National Association of Social Workers all have codes of ethics that make explicit connections to the value and worth of people. Ensuring the safety of all social workers, including field interns, is an inherent duty of the agencies in which we are placed and employed. The agencies must take an active role in ensuring staff safety and advocating for legislative changes that will ensure that social worker safety is a top legislative priority. Additionally, we, as social workers, must take a more active stance in ensuring that our voices and concerns are heard.
What bothers me most about our profession, especially in the context of child protective services, is that we fail to place value on ourselves. We put the needs and safety of our clients over our own. We perform professional duties, as do doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. Yet, we are not respected the same as these professions. Many people talk about how much social workers are needed and how important our work is. Yet all of this importance is forgotten when the fiscal year ends and new budgets are implemented. Little money for raises, no money for additional personnel—where is the value in that?
Finally, no reflection can be complete without a plan for change. Social worker safety has to be a primary goal of all social workers. It is literally an issue of life and death. Safety is an essential component of effective practice. How are we to appropriately and adequately engage clients if we don’t feel safe?
The truth is that there is no quick solution to ensure the safety of social workers in child protective services. The nature of the job requires that we go into unknown situations on a regular basis. However, we can take precautions to make the job safer. The “buddy system,” detailed itineraries of home visits, and constant and consistent contact with co-workers and office personnel can all help to alleviate potentially dangerous circumstances.
Moreover, especially with my placement in state government, legislative initiatives and lobbying are essential. Kentucky has taken legislative steps to address this issue. Recently, Governor Ernie Fletcher signed into law the “Boni Frederick Memorial Bill.” This law provides $6 million for much needed additions and improvements for state social workers. Of the $6 million, $3.5 million will be used to make security improvements, which include safety devices with panic buttons and GPS devices. Another $2.5 million will be used to hire additional staff. Had it not been for the hordes of social workers and social service aides that showed up at the State Capitol to lobby officials during the 2007 legislative session, this initiative could have fallen on deaf ears.
Although the steps taken by Kentucky to ensure the safety of social workers is to be commended and appreciated, the initiatives are just that, a step. It is one step on a long path that moves toward a time when ALL social workers can perform their job duties safely. Until that time, we must continue to advocate for ourselves and take and make opportunities to have our voices heard. Staff safety is a real concern that must be addressed. The loss of one life is too high a cost of neglect—whether the neglect is perpetrated against vulnerable children or the workers who serve them!
~In memory of Boni Frederick~
Justin “Jay” Miller, MSW, is a June 2007 MSW graduate of Spalding University in Louisville, KY. He is a social worker with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. He serves as a mentor for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and is the co-founder and immediate past president of the Louisville Association of Black Social Workers. Recently, Jay was selected for the 2007 Kentuckiana Metroversity Outstanding Adult Learner Award and the 2007 Spalding University Egan Graduate Student Award.