Crime and Justice

On the front lines of child protection system, social workers bear brunt of frustration

Ken Schatz, Peter Shumlin, Sobel

Ken Schatz, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, and Gov. Peter Shumlin speak about the shooting of Lara Sobel, a state worker, at a press conference at the Barre Police Department on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

[T]he shooting of veteran social worker Lara Sobel as she left work just over a week ago prompted an outpouring of blog posts and online comments.

Many commenters expressed grief for Sobel, solidarity with social workers and support for state employees. But other comments ranged from sympathetic to hateful. Some likened the Department for Children and Families to a “Nazi style agency.”

DCF officials and advocates say that child protection requires shared understanding and cooperation between child protective service providers, families and a broader community. However, a dearth of support structures can leave parents involved with the child protection system feeling lonely, confused and inadequately represented.

Social workers are on the front lines of the complex child protection system and often bear the brunt of frustrations from parents who can find the system difficult to navigate.

At present, there are about 1,300 children in the custody of DCF, Commissioner Ken Schatz said in an interview Thursday.

The number of children in state custody has swelled in recent years in the aftermath of two toddler deaths in 2014 and as opiate addiction has become more prevalent. According to a DCF report published in June, the number of children in custody under age 6 increased by 68 percent in 2014.

Children are often taken into state custody at an exceedingly difficult time for families, Schatz said. The experience can be bitter for parents and family members, he said, fueling negative perceptions of social workers.

“I think that the narrative that’s out there simply may be reflective of the incredible stressful situations that certain individuals and families are under when DCF or the family court gets involved in their lives,” Schatz said.

But threats, insults and hateful comments about social workers are “absolutely unacceptable,” Schatz said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has denounced online comments about social workers as “abusive, threatening, violent and vitriolic.”

“Parents sometimes resent and resist the intervention, frequently on cases involving addiction and abuse,” Shumlin wrote in his weekly op-ed piece. “Increasingly social workers face a barrage of vicious comments and threats on anonymous blog sites and unfiltered social media.”

In addition to the barrage of negativity from social media in the wake of Sobel's murder, state employees have been directly targeted by angry parents. Hal Cohen, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, sent a memo to state employees last week about threats to social workers in the wake of the shooting. Some have been “the focus of threatening and/or verbally harassing messages and interactions,” he wrote.

Hal Cohen, Sobel vigil

Hal Cohen, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, speaks at a vigil for Lara Sobel. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

“I take any such behavior very seriously,” Cohen said. “It is important to remember that some of those behaviors are not only inappropriate; they are also illegal.”

“Your safety and well-being are top priorities for this Agency,” Cohen wrote. “You deserve to be treated with respect.” Violence and threats of violence, he said, are “not part of your job.”

But violence toward social workers is not a new phenomenon, nationally or in Vermont. In 2010, a Burlington man was charged with stabbing Kathleen Smith, a social worker for the HowardCenter in Burlington, because she sided against him in a custody dispute. Smith was kidnapped and stabbed in the neck, according to the Burlington Free Press. She was found dead in her home several days after the stabbing.

According to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers in 2004, some 44 percent of workers said they encountered threats to personal safety in the course of their jobs.

Roxana Torrico Meruvia, senior practice associate at the Washington, D.C., office of NASW, said the relationship between social workers and families is fraught with fear and anxiety. Family members often see social workers as the enemy.

Reversing negative perceptions of social workers is a matter of educating the public about the mission of social workers, she said.

“The goal is really to keep children safe and to keep families together by providing those families resources,” Torrico Meruvia said.

‘Left in the dark’

For parents, state removal of a child can trigger profound disorientation and loneliness.

Cynthia received the call late in the afternoon on June 1: DCF would be taking her three children into custody.

Later that evening, a social worker and a police officer showed up at the house where Cynthia's mother-in-law was babysitting the children, Cynthia recalled last week. They took the children with them and gave Cynthia little information.

“I didn’t know where they were or who they were with,” Cynthia said.

DCF removed the children after months of turbulence in Cynthia's personal life. DCF first became involved with her family in March when she called law enforcement to intervene after her husband of two years pushed her into a wall while she was holding her infant daughter.

DCF substantiated the abuse, and Cynthia's husband lost custody of the children. Cynthia continued to care for them herself, with the support of family and friends.

However, the situation changed in mid-May, when Cynthia was cited for drunken driving. A few weeks later, the children were taken into DCF custody.

In the two months since that time, progress on the case has been slow. Cynthia says that she’s had difficulty getting answers from her social worker, and she has received minimal guidance from her court-appointed lawyer.

Cynthia has made every effort to comply with schedules for meetings, has undergone alcohol abuse assessments, and is eager to complete the steps necessary to be reunited with her children. But she feels that she is swimming against the tide.

When a recent court hearing was canceled, she did not receive notice of the schedule change until she reached out to people involved with her case to confirm the appointment the evening before she expected to appear in court, she said.

“I feel left in the dark,” Cynthia said. “I feel hurt, at a stand still.”

A year ago, Amber Merrill watched DCF bring her four children into custody on a warm August night. In her experience, communication with her children’s social worker was difficult, and her court-appointed attorney was unresponsive to some of her concerns.

“I understand that rage that comes over you and that fear and that desperation,” Merrill said.

Merrill said she was “jumping through hoops” without seeing any progress toward being reunited with her children. It can be very difficult to meet DCF’s expectations if a parent has issues with transportation or needs to fit appointments around a work schedule, Merrill said.

“Logistically they set people up to fail,” she said.

‘A delicate balance’

In practice, many Vermonters may not understand that DCF is one player in a complex network of law enforcement, family court and other service providers all of which comprise the child protection system, Schatz said.

For one thing, he said, social workers do not have unilateral authority to take children into state custody. That determination must come from a judge.

Schatz said social workers maintain a “delicate balance” between ensuring that a child is kept with their family, and determining whether the child could be at risk of harm in that setting.

Social workers first assess what other services may help support a family and keep children safely at home, Schatz said. When the decision is made to separate children from parents, he said, it “doesn’t happen without careful review.”

If a child’s safety is at risk, social workers are responsible for assessing family situations and investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. Based on the investigation results, DCF may recommend to a family court judge that a child be temporarily removed from the home. A child could also come into custody if a police officer contacts a judge and the court determines that there is an imminent risk to the child.

Social workers are part of a larger legal process in which parents can lose custody of their children temporarily, and sometimes permanently, Schatz said.

“Our social workers are doing the work that we ask them to do as a state,” Schatz said. “We ask them to protect children. We ask them to get involved in these situations.”

Schatz is quick to point out that DCF is involved in many successful cases. Often, social workers are able to keep families together.

Notifying parents about court dates is not a social worker’s job, Schatz said. That is the responsibility of the parent’s lawyer.

Schatz also disputed a commonly held belief that once a parent comes into contact with DCF, their name stays on a list.

Although the department does maintain the child protection registry, Schatz said that every case that comes to DCF is evaluated on “individual circumstances,” not solely based on the parent’s record. He added that the department has in place a process for being expunged from the child protection registry.

'This is not an issue of blaming social workers'

According to Trine Bech, who heads the Vermont Parent Representation Center, the experiences of Cynthia and Merrill are not unique.

The center, which advocates for parents involved in the child protection system, gets three or four calls a week from parents who feel lost, she said.

Bech said social workers are not at fault for failings in the child protection system, and she does not assign blame to any particular player in the system.

“This is the system, and the system is not working,” Bech said.

In Bech’s opinion, Vermont’s child protection system is too quick to take children into custody, rather than seeking other alternatives that would allow kids to stay in their homes.

Instead of relying on separation as a tool in child protection, Bech said, the emphasis should be on providing parents the support necessary to maintain a safe and caring home environment for their children.

“It is very difficult for parents and families to trust DCF to do anything but having the power to remove their kids,” Bech said.

Bech says a successful child protection system extends far beyond the purview of social workers. She said the state needs to address families’ basic needs, including access to affordable housing and reliable transportation. Lengthy wait lists for substance abuse treatment can keep parents from overcoming addiction, she said.

Child protection as a 'community challenge'

Shannon Morton, a veteran investigation and assessment social worker with DCF, said in a statement Friday that child protection requires collaboration between families, service providers, and others.

Child safety is not a challenge for DCF social workers alone, Morton said, clarifying that she is speaking as an individual and not for the department.

“Decisions and actions are not made in a vacuum,” Morton said, “this was true before but needs to be highlighted now.”

Morton hopes to see legislative and community commitments on improving family and child safety, while assuring safety of child protective field workers.

However, Morton said, the system is not perfect, and she can sympathize with people who are frustrated with the child protection process.

“I fully understand people having frustrations with our system, we in it have those as well,” Morton wrote in an email Friday. “That’s why we all need to be able to talk in authentic, transparent and solution focused ways.”

Reaction on social media, and news comments

The following comments were made in response to stories about the killing of Lara Sobel, a state social worker, on Aug. 7.

On Burlington Free Press comment section, 8/7

“Albeit tragic to hear of a person's needless murder, the anguish inflicted by DCF workers on struggling families is often more than some can absorb. Too often, more often than the general public realizes, DCF actions insight profound sadness, fear, loss and humiliation on parents in need of services, supports and treatment options. Due to budget cuts and limited resources at multiple levels, families can't access what they need and then protective services workers take a combative, accusatory approach with those same families. Tempers become inflamed and despair drives reaction. Just think about how you would feel if you lost your children for no bona fide reason. How would you react? My heart hurts for both families and all involved.”

On Burlington Free Press comment section, 8/7

Dcf has been doing horrible things to good people. They let their own personal feelings get involved in cases and a lot seem to be out for blood not matter what, they do not go by the facts. It's unfortunate but I'm not surprised someone snapped. The system and procedures need to be changed to avoid horrible tragedies on both sides. I'm sure everyone understands and respects the job that Dcf workers are supposed to do, but not always how they do it.

On WCAX facebook post, 8/12

If there is going to be a change in the way people see DCF then there needs to be changes in the way DCF carries out it's duties. There are reasons the general public do not trust DCF. Very good and justified reasons. People do not just simply start mistrusting out of the blue. There are reasons for it. Are all DCF workers bad? Most likely not. Does it matter? Not at all. How many times have we watched on our TV screens about bad cops? Are all cops bad? Probably not. But more and more people are trusting them less and less. For the same reasons they are trusting DCF less and less. Public opinion changes because of perception. If DCF works under strict secrecy, how are the "misconceptions" being spread? How is the truth being spread? Make DCF and "family court" proceedings public. If criminal court can protect the identities of minors, surely family court can as well. There is no need for secret hearings with judicial immunity behind closed doors, it's just inviting corruption and abuse. With everything in the open, there will be no question of who is right or who is wrong. If everything is fine, DCF will gain a well deserved reputation, if not, then the error in judgement will be for all to see and to correct. It's really a simple thing.

On WCAX facebook post, 8/11

How blind and feeble are the advocates of DCF? How many lives were lost or destroyed at the hands of the ground level DCF, worker. Those who have improper qualifications to perform their jobs. The ones who continue to press their clients into an endless cycle of state bureaucratic nonsense. I know people living in this system that have been stuck in it for as long as I have know them. My daughter has been stuck in it for 7+ years. It certainly has done very little to empower it's clients.

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