Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) are a temporary firearm removal resource that can be initiated by family members, members of a household, or law enforcement when an individual is in imminent risk of harming themselves or others. Despite social workers’ frequent interactions with individuals who are at a higher likelihood of being eligible for an ERPO, particularly during screening and assessments in clinical spaces, social workers can only initiate the ERPO process via contacting family members and/or law enforcement in most states. Central tenants of social work such as social justice may create ethical tensions among clinical social workers when weighing when to recommend an ERPO. This study sought to understand social workers’ opinions related to ERPOs, engaging with law enforcement, and their clients’ safety.
This study utilized secondary data from a 2021 electronic survey distributed to all actively licensed social workers in Washington state (n=6,910). Survey data were collected between May-July of 2021. Of the 1,381 survey participants (20% response rate), a subgroup of 510 (36.9%) responded to four open-ended questions about concerns regarding counseling client’s family members, contacting law enforcement, independently filing an ERPO, and the role of social workers in firearm injury prevention. We used Dedoose qualitative software to conduct an inductive thematic analysis to identify key themes and patterns.
Social workers reported conflicting priorities of their roles in this process due to moral and ethical implications they face as clinical providers and their discipline’s emphasis on social justice. Participants reported a range of comfort levels in engaging with ERPOs and law enforcement. Key themes that arose included issues such as civil rights concerns for patients, and hesitancy to contact law enforcement officers due to increased safety risks for their clients, particularly for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Some participants expressed that ERPOs are either outside the scope of their role or requested resources to support them when an ERPO was deemed necessary. Requests included more ERPO training resources in their clinical settings and for law enforcement officers that interact with their clients. Additionally, clarification on institutional policies regarding social worker’s ability to contact law enforcement directly was suggested.
Conclusions and Implications:
Findings from this study complement and further contextualize previous studies on ERPOs. These results highlight the complex spectrum of sentiments among clinical social workers in Washington state regarding their comfort levels with ERPOs, how supported they feel by their institutions when an ERPO is needed for a client, and ethical concerns about the potential harmful impacts ERPOs can have on their clients. Additionally, some social workers’ cited forms of systematic harm, such as racism, as part of their hesitancy to engage with law enforcement for clients deemed to be at imminent risk of firearm injury, even when their organization required them to do so. Future implications for this research include creating additional training and policies that clarify when and if ERPOs should be used, and by whom, to both support social workers and clients in the process.