Although physical assaults like the one that took the life of a Baltimore welfare worker yesterday are rare, social services officials and union representatives say the 2,600 employees in Baltimore's Department of Social Services face a growing number of threats, verbal abuse and angry clients.
"The people coming in right now are far more agitated than we have ever seen," said Donna Edwards, president of Local 112 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"The attacks are mostly verbal, mostly shouting," said Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services. "You rarely hear of a caseworker getting touched or shoved." She said there are fewer than 10 assaults a year on caseworkers.
Yesterday's attack on 29-year-old Tanja Brown-O'Neal, who was stabbed to death after a man complained because he was being denied food stamps, was the first recorded slaying of a city social worker on the job.
Union officials blame increasing caseloads and the growing number of drug abusers and people with mental problems among welfare clients. They say many verbal attacks are not reported by caseworkers. "They'd have to hire someone just to document all the threats," said William H. Bolander, executive director of AFSCME Council 92.
Even before yesterday's assault, union officials had been campaigning to get more and better security -- from trained security guards to office layouts permitting quick escape -- for the employees of the city welfare system.
Last night, union representatives discussed ways to improve security in the wake of the attack at the Rosemont Multi-Purpose Center -- the city's largest -- where each of the 37 caseworkers serves 400 to 500 people a week. One of the hopes is to have more and better-trained security guards in social services offices.
There were two armed guards on duty at Rosemont yesterday. One of them, Manuel V. Johnson, was 75 feet away when the attack took place. By the time he got to Ms. Brown-O'Neal, she was mortally wounded.
Union officials said guards are told to keep theirdistance from interview areas because of state rules guaranteeing confidentiality to clients.
Virginia L. Webb, a labor-relations representative for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said that an employee at the Rosemont center had refused to attend to a woman client because she felt threatened and didn't want to see her without a security officer present. That was not allowed by supervisors at the office because of the confidentiality rule, Ms. Webb said, and the employee was suspended for five days when she continued to refuse to see the client alone.
Mr. Johnson, the security guard who ultimately shot and disarmed the man who attacked Ms. Brown-O'Neal, said the chief problem in the Rosemont office is "with people cussing, raising their voices, acting outright stupid, not being courteous with the workers."
Union officials said something as simple as the design of an office can ensure peace of mind for caseworkers. For example, in the newly remodeled Clifton Center on North Avenue, interview rooms have two doors -- one behind the client and one behind the caseworker -- to allow the caseworker a safe retreat.