Social workers in Middlebury regroup following murder in Barre
MIDDLEBURY — The August murder in Barre of Vermont Department for Children & Families (DCF) social worker Lara Sobel continues to weigh heavily on the minds of her colleagues, including those in the agency’s Middlebury office, who are taking greater safety precautions while redoubling their dedication to what can be a high-stress, thankless, but vitally important job of protecting children.
That was the message on Tuesday from Andrea Grimm, director of DCF’s Middlebury district office. Grimm shared her thoughts about the Friday, Aug. 7, tragedy, how it has affected her staff, and the challenges that the state’s social workers face going forward.
Sobel was shot and killed outside of the DCF regional office in Barre, where she had been based. Jody Herring, 40, has been charged with Sobel’s murder and that of three relatives found deceased in their Berlin home on Aug. 8. Herring, who allegedly targeted Sobel for her involvement in the state-sanctioned removal of Herring’s child, has pleaded innocent to allegations that she shot the victims with a high-powered hunting rifle.
The Monday after Sobel’s murder, DCF staff were provided in-office opportunities to chat with mental health counselors, and talk about the DCF’s collective loss.
“This is something I never thought we would be doing, having a conversation like this,” Grimm said. “The important thing is that we are not having that conversation once; it is a conversation that has to continue as a group and on an individual level.”
It is a tragedy that will have a longstanding impact on DCF workers, Grimm believes.
“I have heard people use the analogy that, ‘This was our 9-11,’ and that the Barre office is considered to be ‘ground zero,’” she said. “It has affected everyone, from the woman who comes in to clean our offices after hours to the commissioner of our agency. While we have not all been personally connected to Lara, we are connected to her through this tragedy and will continue to be.”
Grimm has worked for DCF since 1999. She oversees a staff of 11 social workers, eight of whom specialize in child abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency cases. The remaining three social workers are investigators.
“The work is really indescribable,” Grimm said. “It is really intense. We see and hear about things that people really can’t imagine. You have to be a special kind of person, I think, in order to be doing the work that we are doing here. I feel really lucky that we have the staff here that I do.”
There are currently 88 Addison County children in state custody, and more than 100 other open DCF cases, according to Grimm.
“We are busy,” she said. “The number of children in custody right now is a bit high. That is certainly not where we want to be.”
Unsurprisingly, some families that are under investigation perceive DCF workers as “the enemy.” Social workers can be vilified for removing a child from an abusive family situation and criticized for not taking such action if a child is injured, or worse.
“People get really upset with us, and I understand that,” Grimm said. “We intersect with people in really vulnerable moments. Emotions run really high and people are scared. We represent the government and we need to be very mindful of that as we enter people’s lives.”
At the same time, client families should not feel free to excoriate DCF officials, Grimm said.
“Yet we are not going to tolerate people verbally abusing us,” she said. “It’s not a way to work together to find common ground to help bring your family back together.”
Grimm said she’s aware of a handful of cases during the past 16 years of social workers from the Middlebury office being physically harmed while performing their duties. But DCF workers can face a lot of verbal abuse from clients who perceive the social workers as being intruders and, in serious cases, the arm of the state that is removing children from the family fold. Most folks don’t realize that it is a judge’s order — signed following consultation with DCF officials and representatives of the state’s attorney’s office — that triggers the taking of a child into state’s custody, she noted.
“We are the face that removes the child, but it is a judge’s order that gives us the authority to do so,” Grimm said.
Sobel’s murder has prompted the DCF to consider new safety procedures and to become reacquainted, with new vigor, with protocols that are already on the books. Officials are currently instructed to document and report any threat made against the office, or a specific staff member, to the DCF central office and Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services. The state and local officials discuss the nature of the threat and whether it warrants bringing in police to investigate and/or provide protection at the office that has been targeted.
“We really take pride in the work we do and it is incredibly hard work,” Grimm said. “This office has taken the time to look internally at how we are functioning and how we are addressing safety, from the moment we receive an intake to the time we go out to do a home visit, preparation around a court hearing, and visits with parents and children.”
Unfortunately, threats made against DCF officials have been on the rise at the Middlebury office and statewide, according to Grimm.
The Family Services Division of DCF received 73 total threats statewide in the past two month — five of those were in the Middlebury office. There were 12 threats statewide to DCF’s other units: Economic Services, the Office of Child Support and the Disability Determination Services Division.
“We have received a number of significant threats since Lara’s death,” Grimm said.
Some of those threats are made directly to social workers and/or foster parents, over the phone or in person. Sometimes, those threats are made over social media, or are overheard by corrections officials within the state’s prison system.
“We have always been aware of staff safety, and now we are very, very aware of making sure that our staff is safe,” she said. To that end, each DCF office makes sure that it fills out “staff safety” forms to record where its social workers are going in their visits to client families, and when they are due back.
“Folks are calling me after hours and other supervisors after hours to let us know they have gotten home from a visit, or they text me to let me know they are home,” Grimm said. “We have a sign-in and sign-out board so that I know where people are going. Sometimes police will go out with us to home visits. We are really taking a look at the day-to-day operations, and being more mindful.”
Grimm has noticed her staff becoming more diligent about personal safety since their colleague was murdered.
“We are operating in a different space now,” she said. “We hope that this doesn’t sustain at this level of intensity.”
New DCF safety initiatives are currently in the works.
Grimm is a member of a DCF working group on “worker well-being and resilience.” The group in January is scheduled to roll out what Grimm is calling a “peer-to-peer support model,” calling for each DCF office to designate a staffer to field co-workers’ concerns about safety, stress and other matters. The peer-to-peer designee will be supported by a licensed clinician to identify and address signs of secondary traumatic stress and to help better support workers on a day-to-day basis, according to Grimm.
There is also a staff safety work group in place that is working to ensure that social workers feel protected as they go about the daily rigors of their job.
“This group emerged prior to (Aug. 7), but has gained in momentum and membership since Lara’s murder,” Grimm said.
Many social workers have become more resolute about their profession in the wake of the Barre shooting, according to Grimm.
“While this (tragedy) really made us stop and took our breath away a little bit, it really has enforced our belief in the importance of the work that we do,” she said. “Even though this horrific thing has happened to Lara, we must carry on, because the children, youth and families of Addison County need us to be there.”
And there is unfortunately no shortage of work, she said.
While the number of juvenile delinquency cases in the county has been going down, the number of very young children requiring state supervision has been on a rapid rise. These are children from birth to age 6 whose parent(s) have been deemed by DCF and the court system to be unable to provide proper care for their offspring. Oftentimes, it is because of drug abuse, Grimm noted.
“The number of children, zero to six, has increased 75 percent over the last several years,” she said. “Hence, the influx of young children into our substitute care system. It’s really sad.”
The tragedy in Barre has undoubtedly prompted some aspiring social workers to second-guess their career path. Grimm hopes those people remain committed to a profession that she said is vitally important to protecting children.
“The reality is, this is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever enter into,” Grimm said, “and it has the potential to be one of the most rewarding.”
She encouraged newly minted social workers to “take care of themselves,” due to the stress of the vocation; to connect with their peers and office supervisors, because “this is not work that can be done alone, because we need to make some really important decisions at any given moment, and should not be done independently”; to preserve one’s sense of humor; and to “try to find the best in any kind of situation, no matter how simple or grave it may be. There is something good somewhere, or almost everywhere, and you’ve really got to hold onto that.”
Grimm added social workers should also take a moment to step in their clients’ shoes.
“Keep in mind that this is not where (the client) started out, and it’s probably not where they want to be,” she said.
“Everyone has the capacity to change.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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