Are social workers the answer?

‘Abolish the Police,” protesters chant. What does that mean? One widely tweeted answer: “Almost every role in our community a police officer fills would be better handled by a social worker.” Yet consider an area in which social workers already tend to be the ones who enforce the law. Child-protection agencies routinely send social workers to respond to reports of abuse or neglect.

These workers have little or no training in investigation. Their studies include a lot of information about racial sensitivity and cultural competency, and they may be qualified to de-escalate a dispute, but they aren’t trained to ask the questions that might reveal if a child is at continuing risk. Often they will question a child while the alleged abuser is present.

Nor are social workers trained to protect themselves in dangerous situations. The Chicago Tribune found that, between 2013 and 2017, at least a dozen employees of Illinois’s Department of Children and Family Services workers were seriously threatened or attacked on the job. Some departments avoid problems by sending workers out in pairs. One former agency head told me she let her workers carry mace. That’s counterproductive if the point of replacing police with social workers is to avoid the use of force.