Social work in Spokane gets so dangerous at times the state hires bodyguards to protect workers.
The extra security sometimes is needed during delicate child welfare investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect.
Over the past two years, off-duty police officers or security guards have been paid about $200 a day to shadow three state Child Protective Services workers who had received threats.
The personal protection usually lasted two weeks.
The guards hung around the office, escorted workers to their cars and homes and watched for stalkers in the parking lot outside social worker offices at Washington and Mission.
Child welfare workers across the nation are confronting escalating threats of physical harm. At least eight social workers have been killed in recent years. Hundreds have been assaulted.
A domestic dispute that triggered the shooting of a pregnant woman and her friend in a King County courthouse earlier this month further jolted social workers.
Even sleepy Wenatchee was the scene of a hostage crisis recently as a man tied up a Child Protective Services worker, then escaped with his children.
In Spokane, the violence barometer is rising too. With the influx of crack cocaine, many workers fear they will stumble into volatile homes, intrude on drug deals, or simply become targets for angry, unstable people.
Sometimes they get death threats.
In January 1993, Spokane social worker Karen Winston finished handling a case in which a judge agreed to remove a baby from a home where the mother was on drugs and couldn’t care for the infant.
The woman’s boyfriend directed his wrath at Winston. His most unnerving threats came during his stay at the Sacred Heart Medical Center psychiatric unit.
He told people he was going to get a gun and kill Winston. He said he knew where she worked.
“He held me responsible not just for the child’s removal, but the agony he and his partner had gone through,” Winston said.
An off-duty police officer routinely checked her home alarm system. He sat in her office while she did her job.
Winston, now working at Deaconess Medical Center, was accustomed to threats.
Working child welfare cases in Seattle, a man accused of sexually abusing his three children said he was going to get an AK-47 rifle and “blow her away.”
“You can’t keep them in your head too long or you can’t do your job,” Winston said. “I’ve been hit by one mother, spit on by street kids, had a kid key the side of my car…”
Dee Wilson supervises 25 Child Protective Services workers for the state Department of Social and Health Services in Spokane. He said most deserve hazard pay.
The work demands “someone who has a tremendous tolerance for conflict,” he said. “It can be very burdensome to people emotionally.”
Wilson said the job always has carried the potential for danger, but that it is getting more hazardous as Spokane grows and drug use spreads.
He isn’t aware of any need for bodyguards before 1993.
Wilson said he wants tighter security. He said the agency will continue to hire bodyguards when threats appear genuine - even though the money is not budgeted and has to be pried away from other services.
The agency reports serious threats to police. It requests restraining orders on occasion.
Karen Licklider worked a Child Protective Services case last summer involving allegations a Spokane woman neglected her four children.
The kids weren’t going to school, weren’t getting bathed, weren’t eating right, Licklider explained.
A judge agreed to put the children in foster homes. The mother left hostile, irrational messages on Licklider’s answering machine: “Today is a black day and it’s going to turn purple and red.”
When the Fairchild Air Force Base Hospital shootings occurred on June 20, the woman left Licklider a message indicating a similar attack could hit her.
“She was so obviously disturbed there was the indication there was a threat there,” Licklider said.
The state hired a former military police officer who escorted Licklider in and out of the building for two weeks.
In another recent case, Spokane police warned a social worker that the father of a neglected infant was dangerous and affiliated with gangs.
After the Child Protective Services worker, who asked not to be identified, succeeded in getting the baby removed from the home, the man said he was going to get even.
The man was found lurking in the parking lot outside the social worker’s office. A bodyguard was hired for two weeks.
Bernie Nelson, regional administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said expected welfare cutbacks likely will trigger more anger directed at social workers.
“The complaint level (already) is much more intense,” he said. “We can anticipate a heightened level of frustration.”
xxxx YWCA shelter Spokane’s YWCA Alternatives to Domestic Violence has its own security concerns. The shelter often hides women and children in motel rooms in Spokane and out of town when their estranged men are trying to find them, or are badgering workers. Only the first names of workers at the shelter are made public. Home telephone numbers are unlisted. Carolyn Morrison, shelter director, said police are responsive to concerns. Even with quick responses from police, she said she still wants to find ways to make the shelter more safe. “I’d love to see more security.” She said the center often fields telephone calls from men pretending to be police, trying to find their estranged wives, girlfriends and children. - Jim Lynch