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Despite The Risks, DCF Employees Remain Committed To Their Jobs

Nina Keck
Jennifer Burkey, director of the Department for Children and Family's Rutland District Office, says her staff now has frequent conversations about improving safety inside and outside their office.

The August shooting death of Lara Sobel shocked many Vermonters. For the Department for Children and Families, where Sobel worked as a social worker for many years, it was an especially difficult blow. 

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz says family welfare agencies in neighboring states say they too are seeing an increase in threatening behavior toward social workers. It’s a situation that he says has made a difficult job even harder.

But several family service employees in Rutland say it’s also made them more committed than ever to their work. 

On a recent Tuesday morning, police officers, social workers, domestic violence advocates and mental health care providers talked over coffee and donuts at the Rutland Police Department.

Jennifer Stout, state director of Eckerd Family Services, a nonprofit that works hand in hand with the Department for Children and Families in Rutland, says meetings like this have helped create stronger ties among local aid agencies. Ties that she says have been especially helpful since Lara Sobel’s murder.

While things have calmed down in recent weeks, she says her agency has made some changes to protect staff.

“We do a risk scale. And if the risk scale is less than five, then we will go out as just an individual staff member. If it’s more than five, then it’s always going to be two people, and for every new family it is going to two people going out.”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Jennifer Stout, state director of Eckerd Family Services, asks a question at a recent gathering of police and various social service providers at the Rutland City Police Department. The group gets together monthly over coffee to bolster cooperation.

Stout says family dynamics can change rapidly and her staff is trying to be more attuned to that. 

She points to the noisy conference room behind her. If the risk is very high, she says the police department now makes this room available for family meetings. And she says officers are very willing to accompany her staff if they want backup.

Across town at DCF’s Rutland District Office, Director Jennifer Burkey sits at a conference table with several members of her staff.

“There’s definitely a heightened awareness,” says Burkey. She says her staff now meets regularly to discuss safety both in and outside their district office, and she says she too is grateful for the help of local law enforcement.

"We do a risk scale and if the risk scale is less than five then we will go out as just an individual staff member. If it's more than five then its always going to be two people and for every new family it is always going to be two people going out." - Jennifer Stout, Eckerd Family Services

“In a lot of ways, things have changed,” she says. “But in a lot of ways things have remained the same. We were always aware that there was a risk, right? We’ve had those conversations here in the office behind a closed door.” But, adds Burkey, “the murder has made this a public conversation.” 

It’s a conversation that she believes may help the public better understand the risks social workers face every day. “But, for our staff, it really has brought out their passion,” she says proudly. “So now more than ever they feel like this is their purpose. We haven’t had anyone in our office who’s said, ‘I’m finished with this.’”

Lori Mesli, a case aid worker for DCF in Rutland, nods. “There’s not a lot of conversation about anybody changing what they do because they’re afraid," she says. “Fear is something we all think about in our quiet moments."

"There's not a lot of conversation about anybody changing what they do because they're afraid." - Lori Mesli, DCF Rutland case aid worker

“But if our job doesn’t change and the people that we’re trying to rescue don’t change, we can’t change what we do. We still have to get up and go out there,” she says. “We can think about it a little more.  We can feel a little sensitized.” she admits with a sad smile. “But nothing has changed in what we have to do and what our job is," says Mesli. “There’s no other way to do it than get into that house.”

Case worker Lisa Chapman agrees, and says recent events have only made her more passionate about the work she does.I think that the tragedy of Lara is indicative of what’s happening in the big picture and everyone that’s working in the public, I think, is at equal risk. It's a sign of the times.”

"I think that the tragedy of Lara is indicative of what's happening in the big picture and everyone that's working in the public I think is at equal risk." - Lisa Chapman, DCF Rutland case worker

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz says unfortunately that may be true. “It’s not just Vermont, says Schatz. “It is ongoing.”  

He says at a conference last week in New York City, the heads of child welfare agencies in five neighboring states told him they too were seeing an increase in threatening behavior towards caseworkers. “I don’t want to say that social workers haven’t always been aware of the risks, but the sense that I heard is that it’s becoming more common.”

Schatz continued, “I think in my role as Commissioner I want to provide the kind of support for social workers so they have the tools they need to both assess the risks and then have the assistance they need.”

But workloads for DCF employees are still considered too high.

Before Sobel's shooting, a DCF labor management committee had warned agency officials that high case loads were hurting relationships between social workers and families and contributing to increasing danger.

The Rutland District office, for example, currently employs 16 social workers and two case aids. Jennifer Burkey says on average, social workers on her staff handle more than 20 cases each – well over the national standard of 12.

“Yes, we can always use more staff; we need more staff,” says Burkey. “But I do hear from the central office and the commissioner how they're advocating for more resources for DCF Family Services. And that give us hope. It's not coming quickly enough, but we know we have their support and that support means a lot.”

“We can’t save the world,” says DCF Case Aid Lori Mesli. All we can do, she says, is try our best to help one child at a time.  She says that's what keeps her and many of her coworkers going.

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