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DFCS takes tips from law enforcement for caseworker safety
'Verbal judo' used to defuse tense situations
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When emotions run high, Division of Family and Children Services caseworkers and employees must redirect the energy to find a solution.

To ensure employees stay safe in the field, the agency is taking a few pages out of the law enforcement playbook with the instruction of “verbal judo.”

The training comes at a time of revision for the agency looking to retain caseworkers and provide security when working with families.

“We have around a 35 percent turnover rate, and this was a recurring theme or trend, if you will, in the information they gave for deciding to leave the agency,” DFCS communications director Susan Boatwright said of workplace security.

The department has trained 2,185 employees out of roughly 7,000 total statewide on the communication strategies for hostile situations.

“Many of the local law enforcement jurisdictions use the verbal judo curriculum for their everyday work, so we looked to bring that over to our staff,” Boatwright said.

Agency leaders hope to have all employees trained by the beginning of the new year, having started with the more than 2,000 front-line caseworkers that work in the field. The staff in DFCS offices across the state, however, need the same training, Boatwright said.

“In the lobby once a week, we have a situation that we need to bring down emotionally, and the tools that are offered through the verbal judo will help with that,” she said.

DFCS Director of Education and Training Laurence Nelson said the training consists of a day working on learning skills to defuse situations similar to that of law enforcement with practice scenarios.

“It’s around the staff’s ability to remain calm and redirect clients who are going through emotional stressors,” he said.

The tactic often involves acknowledging the feelings at work and restating to the person to demonstrate listening.

The strategy is keeping a “flexible hold” on the situation by keeping distance and “becoming aware of anything that you’re doing that might become threatening” in an encounter, said DFCS section director for curriculum writing Betsy Lerner.

“It’s a matter of being aware of your own emotions during the encounter, so that you can keep your own tone very calm, collected and cool,” she said.

The agency is also working with Georgia Tech to develop a panic button, a device a caseworker could push to alert law enforcement of their location during a dangerous situation. Boatwright said the department hopes to have the panic button next year.