I think safety is on everyone’s mind this week. Safety is an important issue in early intervention since we so freely visit with people we don’t really know in neighborhoods that range from very safe to places police are wary of going. Above all else, your personal safety is most important. It is more important than any visit you could make. With that said, we cannot refuse to work with a family because they live in a place that we consider unsafe. It’s a conundrum that creeps up every so often in our work and it’s one that can usually be solved with some creative problem solving.
Probably the best tip I can think of for keeping you safe is to follow your instincts. If your gut feeling says that where you are isn’t safe, then leave. It’s sounds that simple, but I know that in reality it can be difficult to do. You don’t want to offend the family. Maybe you are torn because you also don’t want to leave the child there. When you sense that you may be in an unsafe situation, the best thing you can do is get out of it and get help for those still there.
Here are a few other tips to keep you safe out in the community:
Always keep your cell phone with you – Keep it in your pocket because if you need to leave in a hurry you might not have time to grab it off of the table or out of your briefcase/bag.
Make sure that someone knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back – Hopefully your office has a tracking system, like an Outlook calender that can be checked by your supervisor. If you are going somewhere were safety is a concern, let someone know.
Go in pairs – Schedule your visits as cotreatments or, if you are a service provider, ask the service coordinator to join you.
Avoid Fridays, evening visits, or visits on the first or last day of the month – Making visits earlier in the week and earlier in the day might be safer because fewer people are usually milling about. More people may be around on days when checks arrive in the mail.
Park on the street – Be aware of where you park and avoid places where you could get blocked in. I know of a home visitor who got blocked in and had to pantomime call 911 to get the people blocking her to let her drive away.
Be aware of your surroundings – As you leave your car or the home, look around you in all directions. Look under your car as you walk back to it. Have your keys ready. Look in your backseat before you get in. All of these tips sound scary but I learned them from a police presentation and they make perfect sense.
Leave your purse in the car – I’ve seen female service coordinators take their purses into homes. Leave it in the trunk, and better yet, put it in the trunk before you get to the home. Don’t create an opportunity for a problem.
Be friendly and get to know people – Make eye contact, be kind and open, and get to know the people in the neighborhood. Sometimes neighbors will look out for the interventionist because he/she becomes a friendly face and not a stranger.
Talk to your supervisor – If you feel unsafe, talk to your supervisor about it. Share your concerns and problem solve together about how to handle the situation.
Reflect on your feelings – This might seem silly, but talk with someone and think about why you feel unsafe. Is there a “real” safety issue or are you uncomfortable with the family’s living conditions? Is there a difference between your values and theirs or is there a real issue of danger? This is an important distinction.
Be respectful – Remember that you are a guest in the parent’s home and neighborhood. Treat the family with respect and realize that the place you go once per week is where they live everyday.
Here’s a link to free handout about home visitor safety with even more tips that you can share with your colleagues/staff:
Safety Tips for Home Visitors: Planning for a Safe Home Visit (PDF, New Window).
Most families you meet will offer perfectly safe environments where you can join them in their everyday lives and support the child’s development. When safety is an issue, think about alternatives. Maybe the family visits the park regularly so you can meet there. Maybe they spend time at the grandmother’s home which is in a safer neighborhood so visits can be held there. Remember that moving visits to a clinic setting because you don’t like the neighborhood is nota justifiable reason to move intervention out of the natural environment. Be creative and talk about options with the family and with your supervisor.
Keep yourself safe.
Some of these strategies were borrowed from the Kaleidoscope: New Perspectives in Service Coordination, Level II training. For more information about this training, visit the VA Early Intervention Professional Development Center.
Our hearts go out to those affected by the tragedy in Boston.