independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Welfare staff threatened with bullets, rotting fish and violence

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A BULLET sent in the post, rotting fish entrails stuffed through a letter box and physical assaults are just some of the violent incidents workers have faced in the country's under-pressure social welfare offices.

Economic difficulties have seen growing numbers of people turn to the community and Intreo offices for employment and income supports.

Details of gardai having to intervene in increasingly dangerous situations are recorded in files released to the Irish Independent.

Workers at the frontline have faced a litany of verbal abuse, including racist comments and open threats, been subjected to physical attacks and also witnessed knife fights and assaults between clients.

On one occasion the clinic at the Health Centre in Millstreet, Co Cork, had to be abandoned following abusive behaviour, and another time the Health Centre in Portlaoise, Co Laois, had to call gardai and shut their doors.

In Drogheda, Co Louth, the Citizens' Information Centre phoned the gardai to tell them a customer threatened to shoot a community welfare officer. Gardai phoned the worker to warn him and cautioned the customer to stay away.

An office in Moville, Co Donegal, had to pay for professional cleaning after fish entrails were posted through the letterbox, and on another occasion a ripe prawn was pushed in.

Among the shocking attacks and abuse recorded throughout 2013 in the documents released under the Freedom of Information acts were:

* An employee physically assaulted at the community welfare office in Navan, Co Meath, as they processed a client's claim. On another occasion, a customer was punched in the head and kicked in the stomach.

* Gardai were also called after a worker at Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, was sent a bullet in the post.

* Two members of the public had a row outside the Intreo office in Tallaght, Dublin, and a knife was produced. On another occasion, a member of the public had their neck slashed outside the office.

* A client was abusive and threw a chair against a hatch window at the Social Welfare Local Office (SWLO) on the Navan Road in Dublin.

* A person threw a booklet at an employee, fired two chairs to the ground and slammed a door causing damage at the SWLO in Ennis, Co Clare.

In some cases the reports of attacks involve customers, with gardai called after one woman said she was sexually assaulted in the welfare office in Tallaght.

The Department of Social Protection (DSP) confirmed they increased "safety control measures" when they identified risks of intimidation or aggression, and carried out regular risk assessments.

"A number of public offices have panic buttons and CCTV installed and a number have security guards present," a spokeswoman said.

The department recently signed a contract with the firm At Risk to provide security at certain offices.

There are just over 7,000 people employed in the department but it pointed out the number of "stress-related absences" could not be provided as the nature of any illness was not stated on medical certificates.

The attacks have been taking place for some time, with one of the most startling incidents recorded in 2012, involving a client who threatened to burn down an office.

Irish Independent

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