Courts & Corrections

Social workers say large caseloads put them at risk

For Kara Haynes, a senior social worker with the Department for Children and Families, there is a clear hierarchy of priorities for social workers who are helping abused or neglected children.

“When you’re trying to worry about the safety of children that you’re tasked to look after, your [own] safety falls to the bottom of the totem pole nearly every time,” Haynes said.

Personal safety becomes more of a challenge when social workers are responsible for too many children, Haynes said, and right now caseloads for DCF workers are at a new high. Safety is “intrinsically linked,” she said, to worker caseload.

Kara Haynes
Kara Haynes, a DCF social worker, testifies before lawmakers Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

In the three months of fiscal year 2016 so far, DCF has had an average of 1,357 children in custody. That’s up from an average of 1,044 in FY 2014, according to DCF figures.

Large caseloads make it difficult for social workers to build and maintain relationships with families and children, according to Ken Schatz, the commissioner of DCF.

“Not surprisingly, we clearly continue to have overwhelming caseloads that are not good for children, they’re not good for families and they’re not good for social workers,” Schatz said.

The spotlight has fallen on worker safety in the DCF family services division in the wake of the shooting death of social worker Lara Sobel as she left work in Barre on Aug. 7. Prosecutors say Jody Herring allegedly killed Sobel in retaliation for DCF taking her 9-year-old daughter into custody.

Herring pleaded not guilty in Sobel’s death and for allegedly killing three relatives.

Since the shooting, the department has received 85 reports of threats against DCF workers, Schatz says. Seventy-three of those threats targeted members of the family services division, which handles child protection services, Schatz told the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee.

Not one of Vermont’s 12 DCF offices has enough staff to meet the demand for social workers. In the St. Albans office, for example, social workers carry a caseload of 24.8 cases per worker. The federally recommended level is 15 cases per worker –significantly higher than Vermont’s ideal caseload of 12 cases per worker.

If social workers in the St. Albans office carried only the recommended federal caseload, the office would be able to handle just 60.4 percent of the cases they are now carrying.

Other offices fare better — caseworkers in Burlington have an average load of 15.8 — but none meet the state or national standard.

Cindy Walcott
Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families. File photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

But even if the department had the budget to hire more staff, there simply are not enough candidates to fill the jobs, according to Cindy Walcott, the deputy commissioner of DCF.

There is a shortage of qualified caseworkers in the region, and Vermont is competing with other states, including Massachusetts, where child protection services are in the spotlight following the death of a 3-year-old last month.

A review of security protocols

Haynes, who joined the department almost a decade ago, says she never received comprehensive safety training, even though gaps in security have been discussed for some time.

Social workers in the family services division began meeting earlier this year to talk about security concerns, and the group “tragically and horrifically” predicted that someone would get seriously injured in a parking lot, she said.

“Though Lara’s death is the absolute worst-case scenario, safety issues for social workers are systemic,” Haynes said.

Schatz said the department is considering several options for improving worker safety, including a review of security protocols, a buddy system for site visits, and new training program designed to help workers de-escalate situations that could become dangerous.

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, who chairs the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee, said the state is dealing with the aftermath of a slew of tragedies, including Sobel’s death this year and the 2014 deaths of two toddlers who had been in contact with DCF.

It’s “regrettable,” she said, that ideas like teaming up for site visits are considered new.

But Pugh pointed to a broader issue of culture as part of the issue with worker safety.

“It reinforces my disappointment with the community at large that we seem to think that it is OK to make threatening comments, that we think it’s OK to blame someone,” Pugh said.

Lara Sobel, VSEA
State employees embrace at a VSEA vigil for social worker Lara Sobel. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Dave Bellini

    It’s stunning that DCF is still “considering” what to do.
    AHS workers should NEVER make home visits alone. Basic common sense has to be “considered” ? Even religious groups don’t knock on doors alone. “Never swim alone.” And don’t go into the field alone.

    The state assembles the “emergency board” because we have to give $700,000 to corporations in Vermont. Pull the ripcord for companies, that a crises. Why isn’t the safety of workers enough of an “emergency” to make immediate, common sense decisions and to immediately hire more social workers?

    Workers should NEVER make home visits alone. Some “clients” are criminals and home visits to criminals should always be with police. If the police are not available, managers should be telling workers NOT TO GO. And it should have been DCF management leading the way for better safety and lower caseloads. This administration has failed to keep children safe and it has failed to keep workers safe. And it is the Governor himself that has contributed to the negative culture on social media. He has taken every opportunity to denigrate state employees. The Governor is the biggest negative factor. Last week the Governor ran to the press to denigrate state employees and seeking to politicize collective bargaining.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Caseworker overload piled onto a flimsy foundation with a flawed theoretical concept predates this Governor, Mr. Bellini.

      Your point of view about him may be absolutely correct, however.

    • Renee Carpenter

      “The Governor is the biggest negative factor.”

      Especially because he refuses to raise revenue on highest income Vermonters to assure basic needs are met. The increase of childhood poverty, acceleration of stress on families unable to make ends meet, the increase of homelessness and poverty– all of these are drivers for increased hopelessness and despair that, in some situations, leads to addictive behaviors and increased violence.

      It’s not that there hasn’t been LOTS of research data to document these facts. It is that too many of our “citizen legislature” have shifted to become “politicians” rather than “public servants.”

      If we want to solve this, we must fund social services to meet documented need through fair and progressive tax policy. No more “Revenue Neutral” budgets when needs are on the rise!

      • Rich Lachapelle

        According to some, “needs” are ALWAYS on the rise. The problem with adjusting social service budgets and the necessary taxation level to “needs” is that the goalpost is always moving.

    • Faith King

      Probably the only part of your comment I agree with, Mr. Bellini, is that DCF needs more funds so they can hire more caseworkers, and that Shumlin has played a role in amplifying anger against state and public employees (you know, greedy meanies like social workers and teachers – see Mr. LaChapelle’s odd comment about the “education establishment” below. Ooo. Those grade school teachers are so rotten and corrupt! Way worse then, oh, the fossil fuel industry and the financial services industry…no doubt. Surely a threat, those teachers with their smiley-face stickers and field trips) Mr. Bellini’s naïve shock that home visitors visit by themselves just underscores how LITTLE the average Vermonter actually knows about community-based services. I’ve been home-visiting for various Vermont nonprofits (all of which receive extensive state funding to provide what is, in fact, a state function in other states) and I almost always visit alone. It’s a simple solution to suggest the buddy system. But like all simple solutions, it appeals only to those who are frustrated by nuance and complexity and want “quick answers”. (1) Lara Sobel was not murdered on a lonely home visit. She was killed in a public parking lot in broad daylight, within spitting distance of the court, corrections and lots of police. A current and former state’s attorney watched. No amount of buddies would have changed this outcome. (2) Most clients are not budding murderers, nor should they be treated as such, nor should we change all our practices to accommodate the lowest common denominator. 99.9% of people may be struggling, poor, desperate. emotionally ill and have even engaged in past criminal behavior – but they don’t attack social workers. Your statements promote dangerous and insulting stereotypes about people in need. I.e. Your neighbors.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Surprised that it has taken this long and a criminal tragedy to make the argument for more caseworkers. The education establishment, Vermont’s other major public-sector-unionized workforce, has been embellishing their employee base for years now. They have done this by imposing on the Vermont taxpayers the lowest teacher/student ratio in the US and by adding more and more ancillary positions such as teacher’s aids and para-educators and more recently by redefining day care operators as “teachers”. The VTNEA is laughing all the way to the bank as the VT taxpayer gets squeezed. Now the VSEA will follow suit and will no-doubt be involved in lobbying for this ramp up in the number of warm bodies in their membership.

    It is easy to make a numerical argument that a smaller caseload will decrease the odds of a single caseworker encountering a dangerous client but there will remain the same number of dangerous individuals out there who would react violently to having their child removed from the home. Even if the ratio of caseworkers to “clients” was 1:1, someone will still be assigned to that wingnut out there with a machete or a gun.

    Facing facts, in general, the parent(s) who fall under the scrutiny of the DCF are not our most stable, upstanding citizens and we should not be expecting them to greet someone whose job function is to interfere in the most basic elements of their private lives with a batch of warm cupcakes. A surprise attack like the one that occurred to prompt this discussion CANNOT be prevented no matter the staffing levels.

  • Keith Stern

    It is telling that we have a shortage of DCF caseworkers because of budget restraints but we can have 27 deputy commissioners, 6 in 2 agencies alone, totaling almost $2 million in salaries. We need leadership that can do the hard work of straightening out the state budget and prioritizing limited funds.

  • Neil Johnson

    Why aren’t the police arresting people who are abusing their children?

    They would arrest either of the parents in a domestic dispute.

    If you can’t arrest someone, then perhaps you should not do anything. It’s too bad, but there are many terrible parents out there.

    Then when the children need support while the parents are in jail, DCF is the savior rather than the home wrecker.

    People can choose terrible lifestyles, and our state is making it easier and more accepted with the push to legalize marijuana. Yes I know many can use it responsibly, but my guess is that most of the cases deal with alcohol and drug abuse.

    The better message for the state to promote, is stay away from drugs and alcohol, they can cause you problems and usually aren’t eh best answer to one’s problems.

    • Craig Miller

      Does anyone ever stop and think for a moment that all of the recent published tragedies many of the offenders had repeated appearances before a Family Court Judge who let them off the hook? Maybe just maybe DCF tried like heck to keep an abuser away, but it was the judge who put the kid back in an abusive environment.

      Dig a little deeper into these cases and you will find time and time again judges were presented with facts and recommendations that they ignored and as a result children were were harmed.