On The Front Lines

October 24, 2015

Times Argus/Rutland Herald Editorial

This editorial originally appeared on timesargus.com

The dedication of the social workers on the front lines of the battle against poverty, neglect, addiction and dysfunction should be fully appreciated by Vermonters.

The murder of Lara Sobel, a social worker gunned down this summer outside her office in Barre, cast a deep shadow over the Department for Children and Families and other organizations contending with threats to the welfare of children. DCF reports that social workers have been subject to dozens of threats since Sobel’s death. At the same time, a report by Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio highlighted the unstinting commitment of the state’s social workers, despite the threats and difficulties. 

And the difficulties are many. The multiple pathologies afflicting our nation and state are distilled into a toxic concentrate when they get a grip on troubled families. What are those pathologies?

— Economic inequality and lack of opportunity, especially for low-income workers. Contrary to the mythology, economic advancement in the United States is more difficult than in other industrialized countries, and so people are often stuck in jobs with wages that cannot support a family.

— Drug addiction. The heroin epidemic has caused havoc all across the nation, especially in rural areas. It is a familiar story. Profligate prescription of pain-killing drugs created a wave of addiction, and when prescription drugs became too expensive, low-cost heroin took over. The devastation on family life of addiction has been attested to by educators, social workers, police and addicts themselves.

 — A shoddy social safety net. The cost of child care is a huge impediment for parents, especially single mothers trying to lift themselves up.

Parents unable to cope, especially those addicted to drugs, may imperil their children through abuse or neglect. That is where Vermont’s social workers come in. Teachers and others are required by law to report when they believe a child is in danger, and it is the job of the social worker to investigate those reports. That role puts them at the nexus of many combustible forces.

Parents love their children. It is one of the primal forces of nature, and it is true for troubled parents as it is for others. So when social workers visit a home where they may be required to remove a child, it can be a dangerous situation. It is always emotionally fraught, requiring skill, strength, understanding and compassion.

That we have a corps of people willing to take on this job is something we should be grateful for. Also, we ought to recognize that they need support. After two children who had been under the supervision of DCF were murdered two years ago, the department underwent a searching examination that found, among other things, that the department was understaffed. Gov. Peter Shumlin pledged to add personnel, but understaffing remains a problem.

According to Keck’s story, the recommended case load for social workers is 12. Vermont’s social workers are handling 20 or more at a time. It becomes increasingly difficult for a social worker to give the necessary attention to individual cases when he or she is overburdened.

The state faces a continuing structural budget problem, which means a gap between perceived needs and expected revenue is built into the system. The gap for the coming year is in the neighborhood of $90 million.

There can be two responses to that shortfall. One is to look at the expected revenue and adjust spending accordingly, meaning departments are instructed they must make do with less. The other is to look at the state’s needs in order to ascertain how much revenue must be raised.

Policymakers resist the second approach because it would seem to lock them into perennially rising taxes. In fact, some combination of the two approaches will be necessary. Neither the Legislature nor the administration will be in a position to issue an edict requiring DCF to strip down to a bare-bones level of personnel.

Assessing the needs of the department, and of Vermonters, will require them to adjust human services spending accordingly. DCF needs more manpower. It is on the front lines, and to leave it there unsupported by reinforcements would be unconscionable.


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