Social Workers’ Safety Tips To Live By

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. 

Teri’s Story

Social Worker Teri Zenner
Photo from

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.

Andrew Ramey Ellmaker
Picture from

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.

Andrew Ramey Ellmaker in restraints
Picture from

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.

Matt and Teri Zenner
Photo from

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

old houses photo: Old houses P3100008.jpg

Picture from

  • 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

Cars 005

  • 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: .

Happy Writing,

Diane Kratz


“Everyday Self Defense­ SM For Social Workers” by Janet Nelson, MSW, website:

NASW- National Association of Social Workers

WIB.COM, 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)

38 thoughts on “Social Workers’ Safety Tips To Live By

  1. John Dolan says:

    Great post, Diane! I have just signed up to your blog 🙂

    • dianekratz says:

      Thanks John! I went to yours and tried to sign up for email posts, but it said you didn’t have it enabled. Let me know when you do, I will happily return the favor!

  2. Misty Dietz says:

    O.M.G. I’ve been reading all kinds of scary, bad things today. I don’t think I will sleep well tonight. Stay safe, my friend!

  3. marsharwest says:

    Wow, Diane! This may be one of your best posts ever. Good points for others, not just social workers. It’s so comforting to me when good can come out of bad. Certainly that’s the case with your Kansas law after Teri’s murder. Too bad Congress can’t wrap it’s head around a necessary action. But then they don’t realize how important your job is and how overworked you are. As a principal, I came into contact with social workers. Invaluable helps. Thanks for doing what you do.

    • dianekratz says:

      Awww, thank you Marsha! And thanks for all the support you’ve given me! You and Misty never fail to comment! I went to your blog and couldn’t find any posts. What up with that?

      • marsharwest says:

        A new post goes up every Thursday, Diane. Don’t know why you wouldn’t have seen last week’s. I’ll pop over to see what’s what. Thanks for heads up.

  4. Diane, thanks for this blog. It touches me deeply; while working I was a psychotherapist and addictions counselor. My job occasionally took me to clients’ homes. There were a few incidences that were quite scary. As I worked for a corporation, management insisted I always make house calls accompanied by either the company nurse, never alone.

    • dianekratz says:

      That’s smart for them to do. You’d be surprised how many employers don’t have a safety plan in place. I happy you everything went well for you.

  5. Rebecca Rivard says:

    How sad! Hope these tips help the many wonderful, hard-working social workers–and the rest of us; they’re definitely good, practical advice we can all follow.

  6. linda davis says:

    Great article!

  7. katewyland says:

    Wow. What a horrific situation.I hadn’t realized there was so much risk in social work, but makes sense in this day and age. Given the money pressures, agencies probably can’t afford to send our pairs. That certainly should be required with questionable clients.

    • dianekratz says:

      Agreed! Lack of funds is the main problem. What and what’s even scarier is most facilities don’t even have a safety plan in place. I live in a rural area, and in most places cell phone don’t work. Social workers are the second highest group of professionals for violence in the workplace..

      We see clients alone in our offices or in there homes where anything can happen. This class was wonderful because I at least have some tools now to protect my self.

      Too bad it took a tragedy to have some protection!

      I appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment Kate.

  8. Jenna Blue says:

    Wow, I had no idea. Powerful post, both Terri’s tradgedy and all the safety tips. Thank you, Janet and Diane!

  9. Heidi Senesac says:

    Excellent post, Diane. This advice applies to people all over, not just Social Workers or women. It pays to know how to protect yourself, and to be aware of your surroundings. Imagine how life would be different for the three women in Cleveland today if they had known these tips. Thanks for offering web links for where I can go to learn more.

    • dianekratz says:

      Thanks Heidi! That is my hope for posting this. I live 30 miles from Ottawa, Ks. were three people were found dead and a little girl is missing. I wish they could have known about these tips. It seems as though the world is getting more dangerous for us all!

      Most people are unaware that social workers deal with dangerous people on a daily basis. They are the second highest group of professionals for violence in the workplace. The first, are police officers who receive intensive training on how to protect themselves. If it wasn’t for Matt Zenner, we wouldn’t even have the training I just completed. He is the hero and Janet, is a heroin in this story.

      Thanks for stopping by,

  10. Excellent advice for anyone–including teachers who make home visits. Did that years ago in the worst neighborhoods in the city. Scary.

  11. Wonderful post, Diane. And very topical in light of the news story in Ohio. How awful for Teri to have given her life to help others and to have it ended in such a horrible way. Thanks for sharing!

    • dianekratz says:

      Thanks Larissa for stopping by. It’s a shame Teri had to go through what she did. But, her husband Matt, found something positive from his loss and gave Kansas social workers some tools for staying safe.

  12. Lindy says:

    What an excellent article! These are great safety tips for woman.

  13. dawneastman says:

    Great post, Diane. Thank you for the safety tips – they can be used in so many situations.

  14. Very informational…great things to know and be aware of. Also, I had no idea that a social worker’s job could be so dangerous.

  15. Jerrie Alexander says:

    Holy cow. My heart broke for Terri as I read. And kudos to Matt standing up to be heard. Stay safe my friend!

  16. LeavingSW says:

    As someone who is currently in the process of getting out of social work, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the strong negative feelings I’ve developed toward a lot of the clients I’ve encountered. I’ve realized that antisocial personality traits in clients have been a key trigger for my anger.

    I read this article, and like others, I am sad… But I am also angry. I’m angry that people with good hearts are drawn to this profession where they are abused and mistreated, this case being the worst example I’ve come across. I began to ask myself a while back, why is it considered “good” when people with compassion, courage, and determination to make the world better, devote themselves to serving some of the worst people in our society–the child abusers, the violent criminals, the unrepentant parasites who move from one kind-hearted family member to another, ruined lives in their wake, only ever feeling sorry for themselves? What would it be like if these warriors of the loving heart devoted themselves to projects serving a more functional segment of society–good people helping one another?

    I know a lot of social workers would argue, “But these are damaged people, and we can help them get better. We are serving those in greatest need.” I used to think the same. I used to have far more sympathy for the violent, the abusers, the users of other people, as it was clear the vast majority suffered terribly at the hands of others in their own lives. I wanted to right the wrong, to heal. I found that so few of these clients heal. Some do, yes, but so many do not. I used to not believe in the concept of evil. I used to think that characterizations of “evil” people were misinformed dramatics. But what I’ve seen over several years is people who never “get better” because they’ve got no motivation to–they’ve got their game figured out, and all that motivates them is maximizing their rewards. I believe in evil now, and I’ve seen that the heart of evil is the lack of ability to see another person as a person–to see them instead as an object, a tool, or an obstacle. Evil is the willingness to cause great harm and suffering for personal benefit, and even to revel in the harm caused. And it isn’t something reserved to cartoon villains. I hear one story after another about how the victims of the violence are those who showed compassion–the elderly couple who showed kindness to a troubled girl who brought her lover over to murder them for money; the social worker murdered by the client for whom she was advocating.

    The client in this article isn’t what jumps to mind when I think of the “evil” I’ve encountered as a social worker–the cold, calculating use of others. But I see this tragedy as a product of a system that serves evil people at the cost of the good ones. I don’t know what the answer is. I think it’s good we’re trying to find compassionate solutions to social problems. I think in compassion lies wisdom–but true compassion is not falsely idealistic or tender only for the sake of tenderness. Compassion needs insight to function well, and all too often, professionally and personally, I’ve seen good people victimized by others who saw them as an easy mark. Good people who aren’t protected, who all too easily agree to put themselves in bad situations–on the lighter end, being regular recipients of verbal abuse from people they’re trying to help, and at the worst, becoming victims of violence from predators to whom they are nothing.

    • dianekratz says:

      Dear Leaving SW,

      I’m so sorry to hear we have lost another social worker. When I was in school, I was told that the average social worker only stays in the profession five years before burn out happens. Mostly for the reason you’ve indicated here. I don’t know how long you have been in SW, but I would encourage you to seek a different type of SW job. That’s the great thing about being a social worker is that we have many avenues to choose from. Hospice was a great experience for me. When people get to the end of their life, all they want and see is good. They want to die on their terms and make peace with those in their life. If you haven’t tried it yet, I suggest you do so. It’s very humbling and gives you a greater respect for human life.

      People with personality disorders (not all, but most that I’ve encountered) do tend to use people. That is part of their mental illness. You need to remember that when you have a client who is mentally ill. In the end, all we can do is offer our services and the rest is up to them. I wish you the best in your endeavors and if you really want to give up SW, think about writing a book. I’m sure you have some great stories inside you. It’s also great therapy! Wishing you peace…

      Thank you for all you’ve done for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t,

  17. Jared Hunter says:

    Ms Kratz, I’m currently writing a Bill for North Carolina regarding reform for social workers and it includes the issue of safety and making it not only policy, but law, that social workers carry a safety package and are provided with a regimen of self defense training. If you could pass my email onto Matt Zenner I would greatly appreciate it. I want to help prevent tragedies like Teri’s and any information he can provide regarding the bill he tried to get through would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  18. Bella2018 says:

    I am pretty much in shock. I have a ton of mixed feeling at this moment. I love helping others as best as the resources around me allow but I would be lying if I said I am not scared.

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