A Murder Stirs Fear and Sparks Change
May 12, 1998 was the happiest day in 28-year-old Lisa Putman’s life. On that day her boyfriend slipped a diamond ring onto her finger and proposed. She said yes.
Eight days later, Putman was dead. Her battered body was found wrapped in a filthy rug and discarded in a rural wooded area.
Police say the Children’s Protective Services worker was tortured and beaten to death with a hammer by two women who demanded to know who had told Protective Services that two children in their care were living in unfit conditions — a home cluttered with garbage and stinking of feces and urine. About a week before the slaying, Putman had removed Josephine Verellen’s two children, aged seven and eight, from the home in Washington Township and placed them with their maternal grandmother. Verellen, 28, and her 22-year-old sister, Jacqueline Verellen, now stand charged with first degree murder.
The murder has sparked debate over the safety of social services workers in Michigan and across the nation, and prompted new safety measures in Michigan for child protective services and foster care workers.
Child and family social services workers are increasingly being threatened and assaulted, according to anecdotal reports, although few studies have been done. A recent survey of 1,000 school social workers found that 35 percent reported being personally assaulted or physically threatened, while one-third reported being in fear of their safety at least once a month, according to Jon Hiratsuka of the National Association of Social Workers. “We recognize that violence against social workers is a constant occupational hazard,’’ Hiratsuka says.
The U.S. Labor Department counted 9 social services workers murdered in 1996.
Four social services workers have been murdered on the job in Michigan since 1986. They include a Wayne County Juvenile Court probation officer, strangled by a 16-year-old boy she was checking on; a counselor in the maximum security wing of the Maxey Training School who was strangled by a youth there; and a manager in an apartment building for the mentally ill, run by Child and Family Services in Kalamazoo County, who was stabbed to death by a 26-year-old mentally ill man.
On the day Putman was eulogized at a service in Flint, a CPS investigator working in that city was attacked by a 41-year-old father who wanted to know who called to complain about his kids being abused. As the investigator backed down the man’s driveway in her state-owned car, the man pounded his fists into the windshield, smashing it.
Eva Skolnik-Acker, a clinical social worker in Boston, recently did a survey of social services workers in Massachusetts that showed that threats to workers are increasing. “Of special importance,” she says, “ is the fact that violence occurs in all settings including clients’ homes, that women can and do commit assaults — one-third of our physical assailants were women — and that verbal assault or the threat of harm where no physical injury occurs can have a negative impact on the victim.”
Beepers and Guns?
In Michigan, social services workers, state officials and legislators are debating how to better protect people working in child welfare.
Michigan State Sen. Al Sanborn wants to let Children’s Protective Services workers carry guns. “We’re sending our soldiers into battle with nothing more than a notebook to defend themselves,’’ says Sanborn, a Republican from Macomb County, where Putman was killed. “These courageous public servants are on the front lines to protect children. It is ridiculous that they are not able to protect themselves.’’
But officials with the state’s Family Independence Agency (FIA) say giving guns to social services workers is contrary to the agency’s mission of seeking cooperation in helping families overcome problems. “It’s against the social worker ethic,’’ says FIA spokeswoman Karen Smith.
Line workers, who spoke with Youth Today on condition they not be identified, say that adding guns to the volatile mix of emotions when child abuse or neglect is being investigated creates the potential for more tragedies. The workers want more support from upper management in the form of better communications equipment and smaller caseloads that would allow CPS investigators to double up on visits when necessary.
Putman’s parents, Barbara Case and J.C. Putman, are calling for better equipment to help protect social services workers including a “Lisa’s Law’’ that would require social services workers to work in pairs. “There needs to be more than one [worker] for their own protection,’’ says Case, still mourning the death of her only child. “If she could’ve had some kind of alarm, a hand-held beeper, she could’ve pushed that button.’’
The incident has also put a spotlight on training, pay and working conditions. Turnover rates are high among the workers who risk their lives to protect children, said Storm Stone, a representative of Local 6000 of the United Auto Workers. “New Protective Services workers are not adequately trained and are inappropriately given assignments they are not prepared to handle,’’ Stone wrote in a recent union publication. “A random study of protective services workers in Wayne County (including Detroit) has shown that all protective services workers are overloaded, demoralized, and a majority are looking for new employment.’’
The state has responded to some of the workers’ fears, announcing new safety measures on June 15 to protect the state’s 606 Children’s Protective Services investigators and 500 children’s foster care workers. The FIA will triple the number of cell phones available for workers, from 275 to 850, will hire 76 more children’s services workers to reduce caseloads, and allow workers to go out in pairs when they face volatile situations like removing children from a home.
The state also will experiment with personal safety devices that automatically notify police of a worker’s location during an attack. The FIA will purchase more cars so workers won’t have to use their personal vehicles as often, and will equip those cars with keyless entry systems so a worker won’t have to fumble with keys before fleeing a dangerous situation. The Michigan State Police will conduct a two-hour safety course for social services workers that will be broadcast via satellite to all state workers.
But sometimes the violence comes to the workplace. On April 28, 1997, counselor Steven Tielker and county probation officer Charley Knepple were shot and killed by a client at Family and Children’s Services, a private counseling agency in Fort Wayne, Ind. The client, a convicted child molester, then walked through the office with his guns and committed suicide.
Staff members who survived the assault were traumatized, says executive director Peggy Jones, who is writing a book on safety issues for social services workers. A crisis team of counselors has helped people work through their grief.
“We’re more cautious with the clients we see now,’’ Jones says. “We’re more tuned into things that we may not have picked up before.
“We’re social workers. We’re the good guys. But that’s not everyone’s impression because we’re still working with some pretty serious and sensitive issues with people.’’
A ‘’chat room’’ on the FIA’s web site has been filled with discussions about fears and suggestions on what to do. Few of the workers want guns, although some said they could sometimes use pepper spray.
“Violence in the workplace has been going on,” one recent message said. “This is just a wake-up call.”
Kresnak, Jack. "A Murder Stirs Fear and Sparks Change." Youth Today, July/August 1998, p. 40 - 41.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.