First there was road rage, then air rage. And now in Germany, there's "Social Welfare Office" rage. As the nation continues to downsize health, unemployment and welfare services, violent incidents are on the rise.
Long hours of waiting can sometimes lead to violent outbursts.
The dim halls and stairwells in the social welfare office in Berlin's eastern district of Pankow are the drab color of overcooked peas, interrupted every so often by signs forbidding smoking and alcohol consumption.
Pankow may not be the cash-strapped capital's most troubled district -- the streets are quiet and neat -- but its high incidence of unemployment, poverty, and drug abuse are very apparent with one quick glance around the welfare office's waiting rooms. In this one district alone, 360 civil servants handle over 20,000 social welfare cases.The staff say violent outbreaks of rage and frustration are on the rise.
"Violence has always been a problem, but in the past it's been just isolated incidents. But now with the worsening economic situation and the increasing number of people signing on welfare, it's clear that violent incidents are increasing," said Pankow's director for health and social welfare, Detlef Hartwig.
The violence has escalated to the point where staff have had emergency alarm buttons installed underneath their desks. In some Berlin districts, case workers are shielded from visitors by automated, locked doors. Pankow would like to install a computer-run alarm system, but the funds for the required software are lacking.
"Our employees are worried. They've been threatened, there've been physical attacks. We had one visitor here who ran through the corridors with a canister filled with gasoline. And the fear grows with each incident," said Hartwig.
A typical day
Social worker Karin Schmidt has been working in welfare offices in different parts of Berlin for over 13 years. Her description of a typical day at the office is enough to put off anyone considering entering the profession.
"I'd say we're threatened on a daily basis. On days where we receive clients, the hall is normally filled with people who are waiting, and the line seems to move very slowly. That creates a lot of frustration. And if we have to reject a claim, or tell them they aren't entitled to some form of aid, then the frustration grows even more. You get verbal abuse, and it sometimes escalates to pushing and shoving. About a month ago, we had someone come in here with an air pistol, and the whole place had to be evacuated. And the interesting thing is, it's both men and women who get violent," Schmidt said.
A young welfare recipient waiting in the hall of the Pankow office said that although he manages to contain his temper, he understands those who turn to violence.
"You're often hassled by the civil servants who work here, and they're not always reliable. They make a lot of mistakes, and that's why aggression builds up. If you don't get your money, or your appointment gets postponed, then it's easy to become aggressive. I have some mental health problems, so it'd be easy for me to flip out, but since my illness, the staff here have handled things well, so I've had no reason to get angry," he said.
Clients patiently wait their turn to speak with a social worker.
It's clients like him though -- people with mental health issues or addictions to drugs or alcohol -- who pose the greatest potential risk, according to Schmidt. "They're unpredictable, you just never know. I'm talking to someone, and then suddenly, I become the baddie for my client. He pulls a knife, threatens me -- that sort of thing can happen," she said. Her former office in Berlin's Neukölln district has installed cameras in the hallways, something she says can help the situation. "People tend to pull themselves together if they know they're being watched."
Welfare cuts to blame
Schmidt doesn't blame the growing violence on the perpetrators. Instead, she sees it as part of the bigger picture -- an inevitable consequence of Germany's cuts to its once massive social network. One of Schmidt's co-workers, who asked not to be identified, said he's frustrated by the growing workload on social services, coupled with the cuts in aid at his disposal to offer his clients. But he's a robust, young man, and says he isn't afraid to keep doing his job. Were he a woman, though, he'd think differently.
"I'd definitely have a problem working here as a woman," he said. "And if my wife wanted to work here, I'd tell her not to take a job in social services, because women who are threatened often deal differently with it than men, they become a lot more fearful."
In some German cities, social workers are being offered courses on how to handle violence and solve conflicts peacefully. Care is taken not to place newly qualified, inexperienced social workers in districts with higher incidences of violence. If the trend continues, surveillance cameras, emergency alarm systems, and barriers could become commonplace at welfare offices across the country. And yet, as one regular client of the welfare office in Pankow attests, it's a small minority of people causing violence, and spreading fear.
"I've seen a lot of people come in here drunk or pumped up on drugs, but still, it's just a small number given all the people who come here," he said. "But I think it can't be so easy to work here…it's not easy."