In October 2006, Kentucky social worker Boni Frederick was fatally beaten and stabbed when she took a baby for what was to be a final visit with the child's mother, who had been found guilty of neglect.
Although fatalities are rare, this case and others like it are a call to arms for state child-welfare agencies already battling high worker-turnover rates, a crush of baby-boom retirements and a nationwide shortage of skilled new social workers.
To boost worker safety and efficiency, two states - Mississippi and Alabama - are equipping their frontline caseworkers with Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices. Imbedded in cell phones, the technology allows the home office to keep tabs on social workers. If a dangerous situation arises, workers can press a panic button on the phone to call for help.
The technology - widely used by commercial field workers and law enforcers - has the potential to not only improve worker safety but also boost efficiency and attract tech-savvy young graduates to state social services work, Col. Don Taylor, executive director of Mississippi's Department of Human Services, told Stateline.org.
After Hurricane Katrina, downed phone lines forced Mississippi's child welfare agency to rely on cell phones to continue operations. As a result, Department of Human Services information technology chief Bud Douglas said he realized the value of mobile communications and began developing a plan to give employees devices that would allow the home office to track their whereabouts.
Last October, Mississippi launched a pilot project, issuing GPS-equipped cell phones to 450 field workers. The phones, purchased at an initial cost of $450,000, also can be used to take photos of children and their home environments and record audio field notes that can be uploaded to the state's caseworker database.
In the past, social workers had to stop after every visit to fill out their case logs and later enter the handwritten notes into a computer, Douglas said. Mississippi's new system also lets workers use a Web site to enter locations of their daily visits and get detailed driving instructions. Home office staffers use the itineraries to keep track of field workers.
Next month, Alabama will begin rolling out a statewide GPS program, ultimately giving cell phones and laptops to some 4,500 social workers under a one-time $12 million grant from state general revenues. Commissioner of Human Services Page Walley said he learned about the technology from Douglas and convinced Gov. Bob Riley (R) to fund a statewide program.
In Kentucky, where the social worker was killed last year, Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) is pushing lawmakers to pass a bill funding similar technology. The bill also would pay for neutral, third-party facilities that could be used for supervised visits between birth parents and their abused or neglected children when the family household is considered threatening.
In addition to technology upgrades, states are trying to improve the safety and effectiveness of their child-protection workers by providing additional training and bringing in new recruits to lighten caseloads.
But efforts to expand social worker rolls are hampered by a shortage of trained young people willing to accept relatively low salaries, difficult working conditions and a typically poor public image, said Sue Christie of the American Public Human Services Association , an advocacy group for state welfare agencies.
To attract more social workers, West Virginia lawmakers this year are considering a bill that would allow the state to offer signing bonuses of one month's pay to new recruits. Although salaries are an issue, high turnover due to job dissatisfaction and retirements is a much bigger contributor to the national shortage, Christie said.
The average age of social workers is much older than other workforces, putting state child- welfare agencies at a much higher risk of baby-boomer retirement losses than the rest of state government. Not only are large numbers of existing social workers eligible for retirement, but many of them are top managers. In Alabama, for example, Walley said 70 percent of the state's child-welfare managers could retire any day.
According to a 2006 survey by the National Association of Social Workers , at least 12 percent of the workforce plans to quit the profession in the next two years. Many cited increased paperwork, heavier caseloads, lack of training, and personal safety as reasons for leaving.
Of 10,000 social workers surveyed, 44 percent said they faced personal safety issues on the job. Of those, 70 percent reported their safety was adequately addressed by their agencies. Criminal-justice workers were most likely to report safety issues (67 percent), followed by child-welfare and family workers (52 percent).