Times Argus Editorial – Aug. 10


Article published Aug 10, 2015
Tragic lessons

The tragic deaths of four Vermonters have shattered our peace.

Jody Herring’s actions — allegedly perpetrated as retaliation for losing custody of her child last month — appear to have been premeditated and done without remorse. The devastating fallout of that case has now altered the paths of many lives — including those of several children — in inexplicable ways, and leave us all with more questions than answers. Vermonters this weekend are feeling lost, angry and confused.

It is difficult to even begin to process the senseless killings of Lara Sobel, a case worker for the Department for Children and Families, as well as members of Herring’s own family. People will speculate on motive, but there is no scenario that justifies a killing spree.

This horrific series of events points to certain vulnerabilities.

Without question, social workers have dangerous jobs. They are working with families already experiencing problems at some level and often stressed to the breaking point. Any time government makes determinations affecting families, especially when children are involved, there is going to be contention, anger and bitterness. Recent reports suggest the burden on these workers is only getting worse.

Shocking figures from DCF underscore the task Vermont faces in securing the well-being of its children. Here are some of the department’s most recent findings:

— The number of children in DCF custody, 1,326, has risen by 33 percent since the beginning of 2014.

— The number of children under 6 in custody has risen by 68 percent.

Other figures show that the number of calls to the Child Protection Line are up significantly, as are interventions and investigations. Several things are going on to account for the spike in abuse and neglect reported to DCF, most of them driven by increased levels of substance abuse.

It is also likely that the crisis within DCF last year because of the murders of two children in DCF custody has led to increased vigilance by the department. Internal audits found that failures of communication and excessive caseloads for social workers created conditions contributing to the children’s deaths.

In response, the state hired 18 caseworkers to help the department get a handle on the mounting caseloads. And yet given the continuing increase in reported abuse and neglect, DCF is barely keeping up even with those new caseworkers on the job. 

Funding is at the heart of the matter.

At a time when state budget imbalances continually force Vermont to pare back many state services, child abuse and drug abuse cry out for larger, more aggressive action.

Challenges remain for state policymakers, especially when they decide how to set priorities based on actual state needs rather than the demands of a budget limited by scarce resources. The protectors need skills and protection, too. The reality of the situation is that to some if DCF is involved, there are already questions about safety, competence or moral fortitude.

State workers do not deserve to address the important task of protecting children understaffed and overworked. It’s time to recognize the importance of the work that Sobel and other workers do, and to avoid the tendency to allocate just enough resources to allow them to fail. Because, in the end, closing these gaps may truly improve communication, reduce caseloads and allow for better outcomes.

Without question, in the coming days, weeks and months, DCF’s (and probably other state agencies) procedures will change to put safety even higher.

None of this is to say Jody Herring’s DCF case would have had a different end. And clearly Herring’s level of frustration had spilled over into rage — and allegedly far worse. She reached that place where many people who butt up against DCF seem to go: demonizing state workers who they feel have spurned them and “stolen” their children. 

If we are to take anything away from one of the darkest days in Vermont’s history, it is that to properly protect our children and families, we must provide for the people whose job it is to ensure that happens.