This blog post is slightly different than my usual posts. I recently completed a required continuing education course called “Everyday Self DefenseSM For Social Workers”, taught by Janet Nelson, MSW. I learned some extremely valuable safety precautions, but I was also reminded of why we’re required to take a self-defense course to begin with, and it brings up the opportunity for me to revisit the disturbing case of Teri Zenner, a social worker who was killed by one of her clients while I was in grad school.
I’ll share the safety tips with you in a moment, but first let me tell you the backstory: what happened to Teri, and how this course became a requirement of the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board, for all new social workers.
Like me, Teri Lea Zenner was a mental health social worker. She was 26 years old, a Kansas University graduate student who worked for the Johnson County Mental Health Center.
In August 2004, Teri went on a routine visit to the home of a 17-year-old, mentally unstable client named Andrew Ramey Ellmaker. Andrew was diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder; Teri was there to make sure that he was taking his medication.
Zenner’s visit with Ellmaker began normally enough, but at some point things took a deadly turn. We will never know exactly how, or why she agreed, but Ellmaker was able to lure Zenner to his bedroom. Once inside, he refused let her leave. She begged to be released, but Ellmaker had a weapon – a knife. His mother, Sue Ellmaker, returned from the store, heard Teri’s cries and threatened to call police if her son didn’t let Teri go by the count of three.
At the end of the count, Teri came rushing down the stairs. Blood was spurting from a wound in her neck. Ellmaker came right behind her, stabbing her all the way.
Sue Ellmaker threw herself between her son and Teri, yelling for him to stop. All three tumbled to the floor, and Sue rolled over Teri to protect her. Andrew stabbed Sue four times in the back, once in the chest, and once in the right arm; he also slashed her ear. If the knife hadn’t bent in her back, giving her the chance to flee to a neighbor’s house and call 911, Sue Ellmaker undoubtedly would have been killed.
It is not clear if Teri was alive at this point. All we know is, with his mother gone, Andrew went into his bedroom, turned on some loud music and grabbed his chainsaw from the closet. He began cutting into Teri Zenner, almost severing her left forearm and her neck. He also slashed her head, back, and right hip. At this point, the chain broke – which caused Andrew to feel “pissed off” because he had only recently bought the chainsaw.
After mutilating Teri, Andrew tried to commit suicide by ingesting a variety of pills. He then left the house with two pellet guns and attempted to drive away in Teri’s vehicle. When he had trouble getting the car to start, he took a can of gasoline from the garage, poured it on the vehicle, and set it on fire. As the police arrived, Andrew ran into the street. The police ordered him to drop his weapons, which he did. As Ellmaker was being handcuffed, he spontaneously stated, “I just killed my therapist with a chainsaw.”
I met Teri Zenner’s widower, Matt, while in grad school. He came and spoke to us about Teri’s story and pleaded with us to contact our state representatives to pass help a Kansas law in her honor, requiring specific safety training for all new social workers. Among social workers who are killed on the job, most are killed within the first five years of employment.
As part of the Social Workers Code of Ethics, standards set forth by NASW- National Association of Social Workers, we are required to take Social and Political Action for our clients.
Article 6.04 (a) reads:
“(a) Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”
Everyone who heard him speak at Washburn University marched over to Topeka Capital building and spoke to their representatives, myself included. Only this time it wasn’t for our clients; it was for social workers everywhere. The bill was signed into Kansas law on April 8, 2010.
However, Matt’s activism didn’t end there. Matt was also lobbying for a national act called the Teri Zenner Social Worker Safety Act H.R. 1490 (111th Congress), which would have established a grant program to assist in the provision of safety measures to protect social workers and other professionals who work with at-risk populations. He wanted social workers to have the same publicly viewed protections as police officers do. Unfortunately, as of right now H.R. 1490 is dead and has been submitted to the House Education and Workforce Community for review.
Social work is a helping profession. Teri died because she was trying to make sure that her attacker had been taking care of himself. We see clients at their most vulnerable, often at the worst times of their lives – clients who are mentally unstable, accused of abusing their children, spouse or intimate partners, or clients just released from prison. Our cases are emotionally charged by nature, and can become dangerous in the blink of the eye.
When it comes to the violence on the job, social workers are the second highest at-risk profession. The first are police officers. The glaring difference between these two occupations is that police officers carry weapons and receive intensive training to protect themselves.
Something needs to change.
Now on to Janet’s safety tips…
Above all, STAY CALM!
BREATHE and CENTER yourself to stay in CONTROL and to regain balance in emotionally charged situations.
Client known factors contributing to assault behavior:
- Violence in client’s history or a criminal record
- A diagnosis of dementia or low mental functioning
- Intoxication from alcohol, drugs or medications
- Low impulse control and high frustration level
- Mania, paranoia and antisocial personality disorder
- Law enforcement or military training/combat experience
- Knowledge of weapons
- Authoritative or confrontational counseling approaches
- Client’s feeling powerless
- The treatment environment itself
In Your Client’s Home and Neighborhood
- Make sure you understand that you are on their turf. This is a natural safety dilemma.
- When you schedule a visit, let them know when to expect you. Let them advise you about any safety concerns in their area.
- Drive by first to check out the dwelling, the atmosphere and the surrounding area. Notice what’s happening on the streets and who is present.
- Ask your client to watch for you as you leave your car upon arrival. Have them watch you go to your car as you leave.
- Observe the home—both inside and outside. Notice its hiding places, vulnerable points, blocked exits, and escape routes.
- If anything looks out of the ordinary in or around the dwelling, or you feel uneasy about the situation you are in, leave and call for back up.
- Listen while outside the door for any disturbances. After knocking, stand off to the side.
- As you enter the home, notice the general interior layout, exits, and phones.
- Position yourself for an easy exit, if necessary.
- Wear comfortable shoes and clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement. Do NOT wear anything that can be used as a weapon against you. This includes jewelry, scarfs, belts, etc.…
- Carry a cell phone with you. Keep it on and preprogrammed to Call 911 for assistance in any emergency.
- Keep purses locked in the trunk. Keep keys, a little money, and a cell phone in pockets or a waist pack (on your person).
- Look around and think of what objects could be used as weapons, if needed.
- Most importantly, know your client. Be aware of what they may be capable of based on size, gender, mental health status, medications, legal status, and history.
- Whenever possible, travel with a co-worker or law enforcement if uncertain about safety.
- Stay out of the kitchen! The kitchen is the most dangerous place in the home.
In the Car
- Make certain your car has gas, water, and a spare with jack, a working horn, spare change, a flashlight, jumper cables, and a first aid kit.
- Travel with a cell phone. Keep it on and preprogrammed to Call 911 for assistance in any emergency or threatening situation.
- Have understandable directions and maps available.
- If you have a flat tire at night, try to keep going along the shoulder to a gas station.
- Use extra caution in parking garages. Scan the garage as you enter it.
- Have your car keys in your hand as you approach your car assuredly.
- Scan the area as you approach the car and check the floor/back seat and under the car.
- If stranded and you accept assistance, pretend that someone else will soon be arriving. Stay on guard so that you do not become a victim of a “Good Samaritan” ploy, in which your helper becomes an attacker.
- Ask to see the identification of anyone stopping to assist you (police too!).
- If someone approaches your car to force entry, lay on the horn and drive off.
- If someone is in your car forcing you to drive, turn on the flashers, press the horn, stop suddenly, get out and run or cause an accident with other cars (with your seat belt on).
- If you have your windows open be aware of what’s going on around you.
- Keep car doors locked while in or away from your vehicle.
- If you are being forced into your car, throw away the keys (distracting the attacker) and run.
- During home visits park your car in position for a quick and easy departure.
- Be careful about what you leave on your seats or dashboard — valuables and items with your name, address, phone number, or e-mail address on them (e.g., mail, cell phone).
Thank you, Janet Nelson, for your input on this post – and for giving social workers everywhere the tools they need to protect themselves. To find out more on Janet’s self-defense courses, visit her website at: http://www.everydayselfdefense.com .
“Everyday Self Defense SM For Social Workers” by Janet Nelson, MSW, website: www.everydayselfdefense.com.
NASW- National Association of Social Workers
WIB.COM http://www.wibw.com/home/headlines/78536207.html, Sentence Holds For Man Convicted Of Murdering Social Worker, Posted: Fri 1:07 PM, Dec 04, 2009.
Edited by Sally Berneathy and Nicolase Mallat (Crime Consultant)