Tragedy in Vermont

As many of you have heard, one of our colleagues from Vermont’s DCF was apparently shot and killed Friday, August 7 following the removal of the client’s child. According to Barre City Police Chief Tim Bombardier, social worker Lara Sobel, 48, died from two gunshot wounds as she left the DCF office at Barre City Place shortly before 5:00PM.  The Burlington Free Press reports Lara was a 14-year veteran of DCF in Vermont and is survived by her husband and two daughters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to our fallen sister and her family.


An apparent murder like this, allegedly at the hand of a DCF client — and so close to home — reminds us all of the inherent dangers in our work.  The decision to remove a child from their parents’ custody is one we do not take lightly, and one that weighs heavy on our hearts and minds even if we know it is for the best. Any of us who have taken a crying child out of the hands of their mother or father, begging not to be taken their family — even a family that abuses and neglects them — knows this takes a piece of you as well. Social workers anguish over these life-and-death decisions, and only those of us who have ever done this work know what it is really like.


That part of the job is hard enough, but we also have to worry about risks like this. We work with families struggling with mental illness, drug abuse, and a myriad of other serious challenges. Yet, parents still love their children. If we believed they didn’t, we wouldn’t do this work. And, unfortunately, some parents’ love for their children comes across as violence towards us — the very people who have made the protection of at-risk children our life’s work.


When tragedies like this happen, it shakes all of us to our core. We ask ourselves: “Is this work worth it?  What would my family do if the worst happened?” Lara likely had these same thoughts, yet she continued her work. Like Lara did, we all carry on because we care about protecting kids; because we believe people can get better; because we believe parents want the best for their kids, even if they can’t give the best right now.  


In Massachusetts, they say we’ve been “lucky” that only one of our own has been murdered by a client.  Linda Silva was gunned down in a dark parking lot on the Cape — killed by a client against whom she had supported a 51a. That was 1996.  It was 2003 before her killer, Paul DuBois was found, charged, and later convicted of her murder.  If you don’t know Linda’s story, please take a moment to read more about it in the Cape Cod Times.


The tragedy in Vermont reminds us of Linda and the countless other dedicated social workers and investigators across the country who have given the ultimate sacrifice while protecting children. The American Public Human Services Association has created a website honor those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We encourage everyone to visit the site, remember and reflect on the lives our fallen colleagues.


We have asked Commissioner Spears to ensure the Department offers appropriate support to front-line staff in the coming weeks, as we all come to grips with this horrific tragedy. We expect EAP services to be available in all offices starting Monday.  


For the hundreds of new workers who have begun your work at DCF in the last year and a half:  Know that this job is risky, and can be dangerous at times. No matter what managers or co-workers may label as “just part of the job,” do not think you must risk your own lives in service to the Department. We are not superheroes, after all, and any threat should be treated a real threat.


Like our newer colleagues, veteran staff at DCF know that this work is also incredibly rewarding. Seeing children and families thrive because of the guidance, support and protection we offer is why we wake up each day ready to dig in and make a difference. But we cannot hope to keep others safe if we aren’t safe in our own day-to-day work. Be careful and vigilant about your safety — and don’t be afraid to speak up if you have concerns.  


As we begin a new week at the Department of Children & Families, please take a moment to think about Lara, Linda and the countless others like them who died while doing the work we all love: helping to protect kids. And do not hesitate to reach out to DCF Safety Committee Chair Adriana Zwick or DCF Chapter President Peter MacKinnon in the coming weeks with your thoughts, concerns or questions.

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