The Manchester Journal
As we lurch towards Town Meeting there are the usual cluster of local issues that will present themselves for voters to consider. Here in Manchester, voters will be asked to endorse (or not) two special appropriations for a marketing and economic development initiative and funding for the local library. Other neighboring towns will have their own issues up for discussion. Meanwhile, across the Northshire and the rest of the state, candidates are putting themselves forward for local offices (and kudos to all of them for stepping up and doing so), and the impact of Act 46 on school budgets continues to ripple outwards. We’ll have more to offer on all these subjects of local interest, but before we do, a couple of issues that are more statewide in nature are passing across our collective radar screens and worthy of comment.
In the state legislature, a bill has been proposed that would enhance the penalties for assaulting or threatening a social worker employed by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). If enacted, the bill would extend to these workers the same protections already offered to police, first responders and medical providers.
This is a bill that deserves passage, and the sooner the better.
The Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in on the opposite side of this issue, citing understandable concerns about undermining constitutional protections of free speech, and less understandable ones about its necessity, stating somewhat inexplicably that the employees of DCF "are typically not present in emergency situations when discharging their duties."
Huh? DCF workers are often called into situations where a child is being removed from the care of a parent or parents because of concerns about neglect or child abuse. If that’s not an emergency situation, one fraught with the potential for violence against the social worker or workers (and should require a police presence when taking place), then it’s hard to know what is. Given Vermont’s heroin and opioid problem, which we sadly share with many other states, these difficult and unfortunate situations appear to be on the increase. It takes a special kind of person to do this work, and they are far from over-paid.
The ACLU may be on firmer ground when stating it might not make a difference in restraining behavior by those who feel aggrieved by a social worker they have had dealings with that haven’t gone smoothly. If someone is mad enough to call in a threat by telephone, or physically threaten a worker, they are probably not going to be thinking rationally about the possible legal repercussions. But that’s not a reason to shrink from imposing fines or jail terms on someone out to intimidate a social worker who is charged with protecting a child’s welfare. And maybe, down the road, after a few people have been locked up for that, it will deter such behavior. If it deters one instance of that, it will have been worth it.
The free speech concern is another valid point. When is a threat a threat? When is someone just mad? Leaving aside for a moment the idea that if someone is involved in a child custody battle with DCF, it didn’t come out of a vacuum, it’s rarely helpful to threaten someone, verbally or physically, for any reason, just because you’re "upset." The spread of social media, with its seeming anonymity, may give some the idea that it’s OK to issue threats, because you’re just engaging in some harmless ranting, but sadly, we’ve seen too many instances in recent years when that was in fact the prelude to something worse. Better safe than sorry. If someone can’t find the judgment to go for a 15 minute walk and cool off before getting on the phone to speak their piece, then maybe there should be consequences for that. Will this have a chilling effect on free speech? Perhaps. We’d argue that a far bigger threat to free speech is present on college campuses where the notion exists that wearing "insensitive" Halloween costumes should be out-of-bounds, or that dis-inviting controversial speakers who may not be part of the politically correct mainstream of the college in question is OK. Both are far graver threats to the First Amendment.
DCF is having a hard time recruiting qualified people to work in a department that is currently on the front lines here in Vermont. The shooting death last year of a social worker in Barre who was a central player in a child custody dispute has highlighted the need to protect these workers as best as possible. To some degree, these unpleasant interactions come with the territory. This is difficult, and important, work, and none of these folks are getting wealthy out of the deal. They deserve the same support police and firefighters get. Are there ways that perhaps the department could be more efficiently run? Probably. But that’s a different question from safety.