by Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, LCSW
The murders of social worker Christine Loeber and her colleagues Jennifer Golick and Jennifer Gonzales by a former client at The Pathway Home for veterans in northern California hit me hard. This news was followed by the less widely publicized but equally tragic murder of Anthony Houston, a supervisor of a transitional living program run by the social service organization Thresholds in Chicago. I didn’t know any of these individuals personally; my grief is not that of mourning a personal loss. But I think like for many social workers and social service professionals, this news hit a nerve. I can’t help but think: Could it have been me, or one of my colleagues, my friends, my students, my mentors?
The short answer to that question is yes. This is not to exaggerate concerns about violent behavior from the people with whom social workers work. My grief in these tragedies is not only for the victims, but also for the individuals accused of committing these crimes—and for the many people who might share diagnostic labels or service needs with the alleged perpetrators and do not engage in violence, but will be unfairly stereotyped as such. Social workers work with a lot of different people in a lot of different settings, and occupational violence is a rarity for most of us. When clients do act out physically or verbally, it does not usually endanger our lives, and as social workers we also recognize that many people who perpetrate violence have experienced their own horrific trauma and abuse.
Social workers, however, are constantly in situations that are at best uncomfortable—and at worst, fatal, as The Pathway Home and Thresholds tragedies indicate. I am a professor now but in my practitioner days I did a lot of home visits with people in supportive housing. I never faced violence directly in my job but I did find myself in difficult situations, like going on a home visit to see a client we had not heard from in several days and finding him unresponsive in his bed. Not every day was like this–there were also plenty of good days, uneventful days, and even great days that left me feeling like I had the best job in the world. I also acknowledge that if some days were hard for me, they were infinitely harder for the clients themselves and their loved ones. I cared deeply about my job but it was ultimately only my job and not my life.