Opinion: Social workers doing heroic work

Every Vermonter knows that the events of this past week have been especially tough and trying for our state. We have seen violence that is unimaginable in our close-knit state.
We lost Lara Sobel, a dedicated social worker who devoted her professional life to keeping Vermont’s children safe and helping families struggling with addiction to put the pieces back together. Lara’s legacies are many. She is remembered by her strong family, her loving husband and two daughters. She is remembered by friends, colleagues, and a community that filled the seats and the halls to pay tribute to her at a moving memorial service. As incredibly sad as we are to have lost Lara, we are also so proud that she chose to do one of the toughest jobs and bring a commitment and passion to the work of helping Vermont’s most vulnerable.
We also mourn the loss of Julie Ann Falzarano, Rhonda Herring and Regina Herring. Their friends and family are in shock, as we all are, and need the love and support of their community and Vermonters across our state as they struggle to cope with their loss.
I have spent hours speaking and meeting with the families of the victims. I also met with Lara’s co-workers at the Department for Children and Families on their first day back at work after the tragedy. I told them that I am deeply proud of their unshakable commitment to the well-being of our children and families, and I know that if we work together we can ensure safer working conditions and communities.
Lara’s death has driven home for me a terrible reality facing too many state and public employees as they work to make the state a better place to live and raise families. Parents sometimes resent and resist the intervention, frequently on cases involving addiction and abuse. Increasingly social workers face a barrage of vicious comments and threats on anonymous blog sites and unfiltered social media. Some of the online comments are abusive, threatening, violent and vitriolic as they try to incite others to hate.
Lara’s co-workers told me stories of being publicly vilified at their own children’s sporting events, and of the pain of reading website entries calling them “kidnappers and killers.” They are doing heroes’ work, often without adequate acknowledgment of the challenging circumstances under which they do it. I’m certain they are not alone; those among us who make the difficult choices required to protect vulnerable Vermonters — those who most deserve our praise and support — feel like they have targets on their backs, just for doing what the law requires — keeping children safe.
I want Vermonters to know that their state government is committed to protecting our workers. Aggression and violence will not be tolerated. I have ordered a full review of our security procedures, and we are being vigilant in enhancing security measures where necessary. We are also making sure our front-line teams have the resources they need to do their jobs well, and will take this conversation to lawmakers in January.
As always, law enforcement at the state and local level are moving quickly to handle situations as they arise — their swift handling of an incident in Barre Town on Wednesday being an example. They deserve our thanks for their response to these tragedies, and their diligent investigative work. We all realize that tensions are high, and public safety and confidence is paramount.
That’s what we can do in the short term.
But this crisis requires not just a short-term solution that involves police and security guards, but a serious and lasting commitment by public officials and concerned Vermonters to face down these anonymous haters who use vicious language to incite public ill will toward others. We need to remember that those being disparaged in blog posts or social media sites are our neighbors and friends, and a few despicable comments can have dangerous repercussions.
I have taken every opportunity to repeat my message: Hateful speech leads to hateful acts. The dialogue has gotten to the point where we must all answer it and we can no longer be silent. If there is one positive we can work to achieve from this awful week of tragedy, it can be this: We will come together to counter the abusive attacks and negative speech. We are going to say thank you to the social workers, teachers, police officers, drug and mental health counselors and countless other Vermonters who, like Lara, devote their lives to working with parents and families who are in trouble. Thanks to their hard work, someone’s child is safer, better educated, and more likely to have a solid future.
We will never forget Lara Sobel’s contribution toward making Vermont a better place. We will be there in the tough weeks, months, and years ahead for her family and her two daughters who lost their mom. And we will rededicate ourselves to carrying on with the work that Lara did, striving against all obstacles to protect the most vulnerable and support Vermont’s families and children.

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