Vt. Grapples With Social Worker Safety
Montpelier — For eight months before a social worker was gunned down, a labor-management committee in the Department for Families and Children warned that too-heavy workloads were hurting relationships between social workers and families and contributing to increasing danger, a legislative committee heard Tuesday.
“Relationships are really important with respect to worker safety. That does relate to caseload,” DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee during a daylong hearing Tuesday.
Social workers, given the time to build solid relationships with troubled families, “can know when there are escalating circumstances or tensions with that family and that may not be the best time,” Schatz said. “So it works both ways, and obviously that is a workload issue.”
The safety issue was brought to the fore by the Aug. 7 shooting death of DCF worker Lara Sobel as she left work.
Forty-year-old Jody Herring, of Barre, Vt., has pleaded not guilty to charges she shot Sobel and three relatives. Authorities say Herring was upset about losing custody of her child and believed Sobel had a role in that. Court documents indicate Herring also believed her relatives had reported her to DCF.
Kara Haynes, a senior social worker who works second shift taking telephone reports of abused and neglected children for DCF, told the committee that she had served on the labor-management panel since January and that its members had voiced concerns about safety the whole time.
“When you’re trying to worry about the safety of children that you’re tasked to look after, your safety falls to the bottom of the totem pole nearly every time,” she said.
DCF officials told lawmakers last month that they were losing ground in trying to reduce workloads. Despite the hiring of 18 new social workers in 2014, the average DCF social worker was handling 17.7 cases at any given time, up from 15.5 a year earlier. With the state facing a $90 million projected gap for fiscal 2017, prospects for improvement are not bright.
In the two months after the shooting, DCF employees received 85 threats, sharply above the norm, Schatz said. Those included 73 directed at workers in the Family Services Division, where Sobel worked.