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Agency takes action to protect workers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Bureau for Children and Families Commissioner Nancy Exline said the bureau plans to have new statewide worker safety measures in place next month, after a legislative audit released Tuesday determined Child Protective Services field workers are at risk during home visits.

"It has assisted me as the new commissioner to make much more thoughtful decisions about the way we look at the safety of our employees," Exline said of the audit.

Prepared by senior research analyst Gail Higgins, the audit found that current safety measures are inadequate for CPS workers who have to enter houses at all hours of the day or night to investigate allegations of child neglect or abuse, and often have to remove children from the premises.

"These locations outside the office are unpredictable and often unsafe, resulting in threats to personal safety," the audit states.

The audit cites a 2009 survey of members of the West Virginia chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, with nearly 89 percent reporting incidents where their safety had been threatened, including field workers being pushed and shoved, hit with beer bottles, threatened verbally, and physically threatened with handguns and knives.

Exline said the bureau is actively working to correct issues raised in the report. That includes the lack of personal safety devices to allow field workers to issue alerts if they were threatened, a lack of safety training, and requiring the use of personal vehicles which puts workers at risk of being stalked by hostile clients.

She said the bureau will be testing two safety devices over the next two months. One is a cellphone-like device that features GPS tracking, and the ability to instant message and alert supervisors in the event of problems.

The other is a security identification badge, with a safety button which when activated, allows the central office to listen in on the worker's situation, and send help if needed.

Exline said the bureau will decide in November which device is best suited in various locations.

"That is our concept, what is the best fit for our employees?" she told the Joint Committees of Government Operations and Government Organization.

Additionally, both the bureau and the Department of Health and Human Resources have appointed safety officers, who will meet monthly to review all incident and accident reports.

Exline said the bureau is also implementing several safety-training programs, including a defensive safety course in conjunction with the Division of Corrections, and a safety awareness seminar for dealing with individuals under the influence of illegal drugs.

The bureau is also preparing a Safety Procedures Guidebook that will be distributed to all field staff by the end of the month, she said.

The audit found that CPS workers are not permitted to carry pepper spray, sticks or mace for protection from animal or human attacks.

House Finance Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, questioned that policy, saying there is a real problem with dogs and wild animal attacks in rural parts of the state.

"I see letter carriers carrying pepper spray. I see utility workers carrying pepper spray," he said.

"We have not generally given the OK for pepper spray or mace, but again, those are things we are looking at as we go over our safety measures," Exline responded.

She also told legislators she would be reluctant to allow field workers to carry firearms.

"I think it's very concerning, myself," she said.

Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred said he was pleased with the high level of cooperation from Exline and the bureau, saying they began implementing safety recommendations from the time they received a draft copy of the audit to review.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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