Increased Protections for Social Workers Urged

Associated Press Writer

Matt Zenner got nervous whenever his social-worker wife went into other people’s homes as part of her job. She told him not to worry so much.

But his worst fears were realized the day he pulled into his driveway to find detectives waiting.

“Just tell me she’s not dead,” he said.

She was.

Teri Zenner was stabbed to death Aug. 17 while visiting a 17-year-old client at his home. The teenager has been charged with murder.


Now, Matt Zenner is fighting for more protection for social workers. He wants them equipped with pagers that can call 911 and global-positioning satellite locator devices. He wants to make sure that caseworkers have clients’ criminal records. And he wants hospitals to make more room for mental patients.

“You’re taking people that are going and trying to help people, and they’re not protected,” said Zenner, 27.

Virginia Yribia, director of field education for the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, said many mental health centers around the country would probably be willing to make such changes, but could not afford to.

“Yes, you want to be safe and, yes, you want to serve people with chronic mental illness,” she said. “However, whether they’d have the money to do that is another question.”

Many of the estimated 320,000 licensed social workers nationwide venture into the homes of clients to help them get their lives back on track.

A 1999 University of Michigan study of 1,600 social workers found that 3% had been assaulted by a client and 23% had been threatened with assault. One in four social workers said they had a colleague who was assaulted by a client.


“Those are not minor figures,” said Siri Jayaratne, an author of the study. “It’s a pretty scary thing.”

In Madison, Wis., a man was charged in August with trying to stab a social worker to death. An Akron, Ohio, man was sentenced to 16 years in prison earlier this year for raping and kidnapping a social worker visiting his home.

Social work schools address the dangers, but most training comes on the job.

At the Johnson County Mental Health Center, where Teri Zenner worked, new hires go through a two-day training session and an annual one-day refresher, mainly on how to deal with aggressive clients, according to David Wiebe, executive director. Social workers nationwide receive similar instruction.

Madelyn Harvey-Elliott has been nervous about home visits since an agitated mother punched her in the face three months ago.

“I had no warning,” said the Dayton, Ohio, social worker, 52, who has a small scar from the attack. “I’ve never been fearful before, but I’m fearful now.”

Teri Zenner, 26, was never afraid either.

“All the fears came from me,” said her husband, who married her on May 22.

What happened to the social worker remains murky. Her husband lost touch with her after she went to Andrew Ellmaker’s suburban home; Zenner called her dozens of times and grew scared. That afternoon, detectives arrived at his home.


Ellmaker’s mental fitness to stand trial is being evaluated. “This young man has serious problems,” said his lawyer, Joe Dioszeghy.

Wiebe, Teri Zenner’s boss, said that she followed standard procedure in her final home visit and that the agency had no indications that Ellmaker might be violent -- something that could have prompted her to ask a second person to come along.

In fact, Ellmaker had a conviction for carrying a concealed knife. But Wiebe said the mental health center does not routinely ask for background checks on clients.

“What we do not want to do is to criminalize the people that come here,” he said.

And he said up-to-date criminal records could be hard to come by, especially in the case of minors, whose files are often sealed.

Since the slaying, the mental health center is looking at the way it flags the files of potentially violent patients. It plans to expand its safety training.

And it has begun a trial of GPS-enabled phones that will connect a social worker on a home visit with someone at the office with the touch of one button.


Zenner, who is meeting with lawmakers and officials at the medical center, has not called for a freeze on social workers’ home visits. He said he knows how important they are. But he said social workers must be better shielded from harm.

“Society has changed,” he said, “but protection for social workers hasn’t.”