Fear and loathing: Why Sanctuary Social Work News’s current reporting and commentary on homicides against social workers is not only divisive and damaging, but nonsensical

Christian Kerr
14 min readJan 11, 2022
An example of a recent headline from Social Work News, which is funded by the social work recruitment agency, Sanctuary

I have amended and updated this blog to remove information that may identify certain individuals, not because of the complaints made by some of them to my employer, but because on reflection they detract from the wider and arguably more important points about the need to avoid the sort of sensationalist, fearmongering reporting seen in Sanctuary Social Work News following the recent killing of US social worker Deidre Silas.

I also wanted to highlight something in relation to the opening passages of the blog. It appears that the ‘about’ page for Sanctuary Social Work News has been recently amended to remove information relating to the make up of its editorial board. Not only does this raise questions about reasons for this recent change but it once again prompts concerns about editorial transparency and accountability, as does the lack of acknowledgement of the change on the part of the magazine.

UPDATE 19/04/23 —Further to the above, Sanctuary Personnel Social Work News has hidden its ‘about’ page altogether and there is no mention anywhere on the site — or in its various social media profiles —that it is the magazine of Sanctuary Personnel, a large and expanding group of businesses with vested interests in social work recruitment and social care.

UPDATE 04/07/23 — More japes! Sanctuary Personnel (and it’s hydra-heads of associated businesses) and Seven Resourcing (with whom it appears to have recently partnered) have been sold to ‘funds advised by Agilitas Private Equity LLP, a pan-European mid-market private equity firm’. Private recruitment companies unilaterally bringing opaque investors into the recruitment and employment of social workers is indicative of the problem of privatisation and marketisation in social work and demonstrates once again the impulse to put people before profit.

Now to the blog…

Social Work News was launched in 2012 by health & social care recruiter, Sanctuary Personnel, in an effort to help positively promote the role of social workers…

‘The company was keen to help create a space where social workers were celebrated — where their stories were told, and where they could share their achievements, as well as highlight their frustrations. As part of its Corporate Social Responsibility, Sanctuary committed to diverting a portion of its profits each year to fund the development of the magazine…

‘[A]n independent Editorial Advisory Board was established (June 2021) to work with the editorial team to ensure the content of the magazine and online platform is relevant, contextual, and representative of everybody in its audience… The board’s members come to us from all areas of the sector, and share a wealth of knowledge and experience. We’re delighted to have their support and belief in the positive vision of Social Work News.’ — from ‘The evolution of Social Work News’ (NB: some of the wording has recently been substantially altered — the above is from a previous version, which was correct at the time of this blog’s initial publication)

The above statement stands in stark contrast to some of the recent output from Sanctuary Social Work News, particularly that in relation to the killing at work of Deidre Silas, who worked for the Illinois State Department of Children and Family Services. This sensationalist, fearmongering ‘reporting’ and commentary on the risks social workers face in the course of their work is not only harmful to the profession and our relationships to the people we support but also nonsensical, being based in unfounded assumptions and factual inaccuracies.

Aside from its initial reporting, Sanctuary Social Work News’s pieces have made scant if any mention of the fact that Deidre Silas was killed in the USA. There are many and obvious problems with drawing comparisons with the risks facing social workers in the UK. Practice and legal contexts differ markedly. In addition, the USA has much higher homicide rates than the UK (5.8 per 100,000 of the population in the USA as opposed to 1.17 per 100,000 or 11.7 per million in the UK). You are five times more likely to be the victim of a homicide in the USA than in the UK. There is no doubt that social work carries additional risk due to the highly emotionally charged nature of the work but it is not only nonsensical to draw direct comparisons — as Sanctuary Social Work News has done over the course of several pieces since the news of Ms. Silas’s death broke — but highly irresponsible due to the starkly different contexts. I am not saying we should not use these awful events to reflect on working conditions for social workers in this country, but the manner in which this is being done by Sanctuary Social Work News is deeply questionable and arguably unethical, using fearmongering tactics which have more in common with the more salacious and morally dubious corners of tabloid sensationalism than with the responsible publishing we should expect from ‘a magazine for social workers, by social workers’.

Thankfully, killings of social workers appear to be extremely rare, though I very much agree we should not be complacent about the risks presented by the nature of the work we choose to do. One avoidable death is far too many. There are no global statistics for these things so we are left to trawl national statistics for clues. In the USA, fatal occupational deaths of ‘community and social services workers’ in 2020 stood at 26. There are approximately 680,000 social workers in the USA. Even assuming that all those ‘community and social services workers’ are social workers, this means that 0.003823529412% of social workers in the USA are fatally injured at work. And that is without knowing the cause of those injuries. Looking at the other statistics, it would appear social workers in the US are far more likely to be killed in road traffic accidents between visits than at the hands of someone they support.

In the UK, 142 workers were fatally injured at work in 2020/21. Over half of these were in agriculture, forestry, fishing or construction. However, these figures relate only to workplace accidents. It is not possible to tell from the UK homicide statistics how many social workers have been victims of homicide because they are not listed by occupation. However, the statistics do speak starkly of the risks faced by vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised groups and communities. Of the 695 UK homicide victims that year 39–29 men, 2 boys, and 8 women — were the victims of human trafficking whose bodies were found in a lorry in Grays, Essex. The total also included 105 black victims, the highest recorded number since 2002. Almost half (46%) of the adult female homicide victims were killed in a domestic homicide and in just over a third of homicides of a female victim aged 16 years or over, the suspect was their partner or ex-partner. There were 45 victims of homicide aged under 16 years that year, the lowest number for four years. For just over a quarter of child victims the suspect was a parent or step-parent.

I could go on, but the point is that it is clear that the people who social workers support are far more likely to be victims of homicide than social workers. Again, that is not to say we should be complacent about risks — and I absolutely support calls for better working conditions and protection by our employers — but it is to say that we need to be very careful about how we frame the issues and the risks, and remain sensitive and aware of the consequences, for all concerned, of our framing. The recent coverage by Sanctuary Social Work News has fallen woefully short of that.

Without reliable statistics to draw on regarding the risk of homicide to social workers, we are left to scour the internet for clues as to the numbers of social workers who are victims of homicide. Thankfully, I found very few. Distressingly, in addition to the recent horrific killing of Deidre Silas, there was the killing of Saba Aslam in Karachi just last month. It is unclear why Sanctuary Social Work News did not report on this one. Perhaps they only report killings of Anglophone social workers — the ones from countries where there is an audience for clickbait sensationalism and questionable ‘social work’ memes. There is also the key question around whether social workers who fall victim to homicide are killed as a direct result of undertaking their work. We do not yet know what happened to Saba Aslam, except that her neighbour has been charged, and the crime took place outside her own home. Therefore, we must be cautious about leaping to unfounded conclusions.

Sadly, leaping to unfounded conclusions is something that happens all too often in relation to these issues. Remember Belinda Rose? Belinda was the social care worker stabbed to death at work in August 2019. The comments below this piece reflect assumptions widely made at the time: that Belinda was a) a social worker, and b) she was killed by a service user. So keen were some social workers to claim Belinda’s killing as evidence of the risk to social workers from the people they support that some misidentified a completely different Belinda Rose on the social workers’ register as she. I remember an exchange I had with another social worker on Twitter shortly after the news of Belinda’s death broke in which I (unsuccessfully, it seems) tried to explain the problems with social workers ‘claiming’ this homicide in order to advance fearful narratives of social workers being at constant risk from the people they support.

Tweet wrongly identifying homicide victim Belinda Rose as a registered social worker

For the avoidance of doubt, here is the current entry on the register for the social worker Belinda Rose.

Back to the question about the risk from the people we hope and aim to support. The social care worker Belinda Rose who was killed in 2019 was in fact stabbed to death by her own boss, Inderjit Ram, who had mental health issues and was experiencing stress relating to the imminent collapse of the supported living service he owned. Belinda turned up for a meeting with him at his office, he asked her to loan him several thousand pounds and when she refused he stabbed her to death. So not only is it not true that Belinda was a registered social worker, she was also not killed by a ‘service user’. It is true that she was killed in the line of her work — by her own employer, someone who had a responsibility to protect her but whose responsibility was diminished as a result of his mental state at the time. This difficult, tragic case speaks to the complex interplay of factors surrounding most if not all homicides, our understanding of which is not well served by the apportioning of blame on individuals, or by irresponsible, sensationalist coverage that appears to put clicks, ‘likes’ and web traffic above concern for the people involved — all things which, regrettably, characterise some of the recent output of Sanctuary Social Work News.

My intention here is not to castigate social workers for falling prey to the sensationalist reporting that seeks to use these tragedies in ways that risk sowing fear and discord among social workers and the people they support but to again highlight the need for caution and sensitivity in the wake of highly emotive news concerning social workers’ safety at work, and also to highlight that there appear to be common and recurring themes and preoccupations in the output of Sanctuary Social Work News and those who write for them.

Below are some tweets from the days immediately following news of Belinda Rose’s death, which repeat and further transmit false assertions that Belinda was a) a social worker and b) killed by a person she was supporting. They show how misinformation, whether deliberate or not, can take hold and be widely transmitted all too easily, contributing to a distorted picture of reality.

Note the othering within the (completely false) statement, “One of them killed her.”
The above tweet was shared extensively and repeats the falsehood that Belinda Rose was a social worker. Note also the implication behind “murdered in the line of duty” (and “killed during a home visit” in the tweet before it). Belinda was in fact killed by her boss, Inderjit Ram, in the office of the group home she worked in.

Yet despite freely available information that has emerged since that time, this Sanctuary Social Work News article from yesterday repeats the falsehood that Belinda Rose, the support worker who was killed by her boss, Inderjit Ram, in 2019, was a social worker. Even a cursory Google search reveals this is not the case. No excuse, then, for this lack of basic journalistic rigour, especially when, ironically, the piece describes the author’s cursory internet searches for examples of social workers who have been murdered. It is worth noting that had the author also searched for ‘social worker charged with…’ they would have found examples of the many crimes social workers throughout the world have been charged with, such as human trafficking, neglect, kidnapping and, yes, homicide. Would we contend on the basis of that information that social workers are particularly prone to criminal activity? There are some who may well say that is the case, but I’d like to make it clear that my mention of this is in no way intended to provide rhetorical bullets to shoot down the social work profession with but to highlight that if you type any profession or group of people into a search engine suffixed with ‘charged with…’ you are going to get a lot of hits and therefore it can be used to support any argument that that particular group is morally defunct, evil etc. Equally, if your suffix is ‘… murdered’ you will find examples to support an argument that a particular group is especially vulnerable, whether that is the case or not. Using anything but reliable data when discussing highly emotive, sensitive and traumatic matters such as these is, in my view, irresponsible to the utmost.

Interestingly, Sanctuary Social Work News appears to have a penchant for deviant social worker stories. Here are some fairly recent examples.

All of this is especially uncomfortable in light of Sanctuary’s current tenure as headline sponsor of the Social Work Awards, a charity whose mission is to raise the positive profile of the profession.

I very much recognise the concern, distress and worry social workers feel when confronted with news of a colleague — even when not known to us personally or living thousands of miles away — being assaulted or, horribly, killed when doing their job. Our common values and experiences bind us so that we feel connected to our colleagues and affected by these events in ways that are hard to put into words. We also, understandably, worry about our own safety. It is awful to face the truth that it is very likely that social workers will be assaulted and possibly killed at work in future, as will people from other professions and industries. In order to prevent this from happening we need to be able to uncover and examine the root causes. I and others — as part of a proud ‘small and vocal minority’ — have campaigned in the face of overwhelming numbers who believe differently against the inclusion of social workers in the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act because we were concerned about the consequences of populist, knee jerk (and factually incorrect) responses and simplistic petitions. These are complex and distressing issues that need careful consideration. This open letter to the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the Social Workers Union (SWU) sets out these concerns, and are relevant here. In it, the signatories stated our belief that it is vital that social workers consider very carefully which groups are more likely to be adversely impacted by these proposals, and suggested that on existing evidence, due to the over-representation of certain groups among those subject to involuntary state interventions, it is more likely that people of lower socioeconomic status and lower social class, people with mental health issues and substance misuse issues, and people from minority ethnic backgrounds are the ones who will suffer the consequences of harsher sentences under the proposals. We stated that the onus must be on employers to ensure that workers are protected through measures such as joint visits (with other social workers and/or representatives from other agencies) and effective lone working policies and processes. We highlighted that due to high levels of pressure on the systems in which social workers practise, these things are too often either not in place or, when they are, not always properly implemented. Citizens, especially already vulnerable ones, should not be punished due to statutory services not having appropriate safeguards in place to protect their employees. We called on BASW and SWU to work with employers, government and the media to find ways a way of ensuring that the general public and politicians understand that social workers and others who provide support and services to people in vulnerable situations face risks, including assault, as a result.

I would like to take the opportunity to repeat that call, and the messages that precede it, here.

Anecdotally, I should also say that in 16 years of working in social care, mainly with adults with mental health issues, learning disabilities and brain injuries, I have seldom felt unsafe or experienced abuse. It has happened but, then, I grew up in places where not feeling safe and experiencing abuse were fairly common experiences. I recognise that this is not the case for everyone and I am not suggesting we should be OK with feeling unsafe or threatened at work, or with experiencing abuse of any kind. However, it is worth noting that there have been times when I have felt unsafe because of poor working practices, or a toxic team culture, or because my working conditions impacted on my mental and physical health. Thankfully these have not been frequent, nor usually long lasting. I am sorry to say that I have also been publicly and privately threatened by other social workers. Once, a few months ago when another social worker made threats of violence toward me when I stated my opinion in relation to his decision to publish an article in (wait for it) Sanctuary Social Work News. The other was a few years ago when another, self-described “well known” social worker found out where I worked and left voicemails on my work phone threatening to “track [me] down” at home if I didn’t meet with him to discuss my public challenges to his (anonymous) problematic social media output, and then in fact did come to my home on a Saturday morning to remonstrate with me while I spent time with my young family.

I have wrestled with the question of whether to mention these things here, and have decided they warrant it for the reason that, had a member or members of the public done these things to a social worker or social workers, I have no doubt that it would have been cited as evidence of the hostility social workers face every day. There is painful irony in noting that Sanctuary Social Work News, tagged into the hostile and threatening Tweets mentioned above, not only remained silent on those threats, but continues to publish those people’s writings. It is high time that the owner and editors of Sanctuary Social Work News take seriously the responsibilities that come with upholding their publication as a ‘voice of the profession’ by being open, honest and transparent, acknowledging their mistakes and undertaking to adhere to the same ethical standards and principles that practising social workers — the magazine’s target audience — are required to every day, all too often at cost to their own well being.

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Christian Kerr

Concerned citizen/novice by experience. Thru a social work lens. Working class person.