Penalties could be increased for assaults on social workers

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 4 on a bill that would require more training for social workers and licensed professionals and increase penalties for assaults against them.

LB402, introduced by Omaha Senator Gwen Howard, would require social workers who are licensed, certified, employed by the state Department of Health and Human Services or contractors of the department to attend six hours of one-time safety training.

This bill also would increase the penalty for assault on a social worker or licensed health care professional from a Class I misdemeanor to a Class IV felony.

Social workers are insufficiently trained in safety and often are not aware of potentially dangerous situations they could be entering into, Howard said. Seventy percent of frontline social workers report threats of violence on the job, she said, and most incidents are reported after injuries already have occurred.

“Social work can be a dangerous profession,” Howard said. “Social workers should have as many tools as possible to keep themselves and their clients safe.”

Terry Werner, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, testified in support of the bill.

Increasing the assault charge to a felony is important, Werner said, because it would deter agitated clients who might otherwise become violent.

Requiring social workers to have safety training also is needed, Werner said. Many people hired as social workers have not received training on these issues, he said, because only a four-year degree is required. The degree does not have to be in social work, he added.

Mary Bahney, a licensed medical social worker, also testified in support of the bill, saying she has worked with clients who have become upset. Gaining information on how to deal with those situations through training rather than trial and error would have been helpful, she said.

Brad Meurrens, public policy specialist for Nebraska Advocacy Services, testified in opposition to the bill, saying penalties for assaults are already provided in law. What needs to be addressed is the root cause of the assaults, he said, and that issue requires a more robust investigation.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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