It was a heart-wrenching story that broke a week ago: Police say a woman upset over a custody decision gunned down a state worker and three family members. During the vigil for slain Department for Children and Families worker Lara Sobel, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said negative rhetoric toward social workers must be curtailed and people should know more about what they do.
Social worker. It’s a phrase that can bring to mind an iron-fisted bureaucracy that breaks up families. But that’s not the reality according to the man who oversees the Agency of Human Services. Secretary Hal Cohen says Department for Children and Families workers are serving Vermonters in a variety of ways. “Our workers are fantastic professionals. They’re very compassionate. What they’re doing is going in and trying to protect children and trying to protect families. The message has to go out that these are folks who are in a very difficult job. They sometimes have to do things that make people unhappy. But they do it to protect people, in particular to protect children.”
Vermont Department of Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz explains that the job itself is not dangerous, but the social workers can encounter tense situations. “Social workers receive calls through our child protection hotline. We as appropriate will assess or investigate the situation and the court will potentially get involved. The social workers’ role is to continue to assess the situation. They’ll also look at the stresses the family might be under to see if services or other support can be offered for the family. And ultimately we’re looking for permanency for the child. So the social workers’ approach in many circumstances is to enable children and families to stay together.”
Prevent Child Abuse Vermont is a non-profit organization working on child abuse issues in the state. Executive Director Linda Johnson calls DCF workers the front line for protecting children. “Most of the offices have two components. One is the investigation unit and the other is the ongoing social work. DCF has a really tough job. They have to figure out what’s going on in the family with the family’s help and what the family needs and how best to help them. They are heroes the same as firemen. They go into places that you really don’t know what’s on the other side of the door and you’ve got to use all your skills to keep everyone safe including yourself.”
Vermont House Representative Anne Pugh is also a Professor of Social Work at the University of Vermont. “Child protection social workers are doing what the community has asked them to do which is to work with families in crisis and to protect children. There’s no one simple answer and there’s no one right way to do it. If they go into families and kids remain in their family there are people who are going to say that you’re not doing enough to protect children. Yet if the court decides that the child needs to be removed then the conversation is child protection workers snatch children. The reality is they don’t have the power to do that.”
Jody Herring, the woman charged will killing DCF employee Lara Sobel, is being held without bail.