“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.
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.
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.