Although Child Protective Services workers often find themselves in tense, stressful situations, a recent audit found the state Department of Health and Human Resources and its Bureau for Children and Families lacks adequate policies and protections for those workers.
The West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office released its report on West Virginia’s Child Protective Services in August, finding high turnover rates among both social workers and trainees and a lack of “urgency” at the agency for conducting timely investigations of child abuse allegations.
Gail Higgins, an analyst with auditor’s office, returned to the Legislature on Tuesday to talk about another issue uncovered in the report, the “fragmented” and “inadequate” safety policies for CPS workers.
Auditors reviewed DHHR and BCF policies and interviewed Child Protective Services workers, uncovering numerous safety concerns. Higgins told lawmakers safety policies existed to protect workers while in the office, but those performing field work have “limited resources and no defined safety protocols.”
“CPS workers have few protections when they leave the office,” she said.
Higgins said CPS work requires social workers meet clients in their homes, at all hours, seven days a week, to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. Workers never know if the people they’re visiting will be intoxicated, violent or mentally ill, creating an “unpredictable and often unsafe” work environment, she said.
They are not allowed to carry any kind of defense weapon, such as pepper spray or a taser, and receive only limited self-defense training (usually focused on common sense behaviors, like understanding a client’s view of authority figures).
Auditors also noted CPS workers do not uniformly use cellphones while on the job. The agency does not provide phones to all workers, and allows each worker to decide whether or not they want to use state-issued cellphones. Others use their personal phones to store client information, take photos and communicate with clients.
Higgins said social workers also drive easily-identifiable vehicles, making it easy for clients to track or stalk them, especially since many of the workers live in the same communities as the people they serve.
The National Association for Social Workers earlier this year released a set of guidelines for worker safety. Higgins said West Virginia’s Bureau for Children and Families did not meet those guidelines, and recommended the agency work to create a culture that promotes safety and security among employees by establishing policies and safety committees, as well as keeping track of dangerous incidents workers experience.
Higgins noted the bureau has made several “positive steps” since receiving the auditor’s report in August. She said the agency has established safety policies for workers, training staff how to report dangerous incidents and setting up a monthly review of those incidents in order to better understand the needs of workers.
Nancy Exline, deputy commissioner at the Bureau for Children and Families, also spoke to lawmakers on Tuesday.
She said the bureau has started a pilot project using handheld devices that allow workers to store contact information, send messages to supervisors and take photos and video.
In November, the agency also will test a new security badge that features a panic button, allowing operators to listen in and determine if the worker needs help from law enforcement. The device also would allow workers to leave messages for law enforcement when entering areas of the state that do not have cellphone service.
Exline said the bureau also is looking at ways to standardize safety policies throughout all its offices, and increase self defense and drug training for social workers.
“We can’t plan for everything that might occur, but we certainly have better steps in place to make workers feel…managers everywhere are looking out for their safety,” she said.