ST. ALBANS — The day after social worker Lara Sobel was murdered, Alix Gibson asked a colleague, “How are we going to go about our day?”
Her colleague responded: “We do what we do best – we carry on with a heavy heart.”
Sobel, who interned for a year in the St. Albans Department for Children and Families district office in 2001 before working 14 years in Barre, was shot and killed last Friday as she left work.
Gibson, the St. Albans district office director, and her staff, which covers Franklin County, have done their best to carry on as they mourn her death.
Sobel’s alleged attacker, Jody Herring, recently lost custody of her 9-year-old daughter. She pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder in Washington County Superior Court Monday.
In the wake of this news, Gibson and her co-workers have gone through a range of strong emotions.
“People are struggling,” she said yesterday. “They’re very sad and angry and scared – I think I lot of feelings people have been trying to keep at bay for a very, very long time, they’ve surfaced.”
An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor and several Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS) mental health professionals helped facilitate a crisis debriefing with DCF staff on Monday. NCSS continues to be on-call for anyone who may be experiencing trauma.
In the meantime, DCF is continuing. “It always feels so horrible that the world doesn’t stop,” Gibson said. “We still have to do our work.”
Though they did not respond to field calls over the weekend in the immediate aftermath of Sobel’s death – Gov. Shumlin sent out a statewide request that DCF workers only respond to emergency calls and that law enforcement accompany them – Gibson said the week has been busy.
The local office, for instance, is handling the logistics of an increased workload in light of several workers helping at the Barre district office. The more urgent matter, though, is making sure DCF workers are safe.
In the St. Albans District DCF office, there’s a sign-in and sign-out board to keep track of staff . Other than their cell phones (providing spotty coverage), sometimes being accompanied by a caseworker, and in extreme cases, law enforcement – DCF staff has few resources available for protection while on home visits.
“This has heightened our awareness,” said Gibson, “and understandably put us on edge.”
She added that over the past few days, there have been discussions of situations social workers have put themselves in in the past that, upon re-examination, were cause for serious concern.
“A client has threatened to slit someone’s throat, we’ve had messages saying that they hope something bad happens to one of our family members,” said Gibson. “We get these messages on a weekly basis.”
Since Sobel’s death, social media posts justifying her murder and violence towards other DCF social workers have increased. Gibson said that while she and her staff are encouraged not to read them, they did look at some and found authors who are their clients.
“The things people are writing – just justifying this – it’s so hard,” she said.
Whereas these threats may have occurred without serious discussion in the past – because they were so common – after Sobel’s death, Gibson said she and her staff are now communicating more among each other and community partners.
She added that just on Tuesday, there was an incident with a potential threat of violence. Though she couldn’t elaborate due to confidentiality concerns, Gibson did say the response was immediate and on a large scale.
“We had all hands on deck,” she said. Any field calls were handled by pairs – if not more social workers — and St. Albans Police Department, Vermont State Police, the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s office, the Agency of Human Services field director were all communicating.
While Gibson said she doesn’t want to create a “hysterical office” environment, more communication allows her, the various levels of staff and other community partners to have the knowledge they may need to respond to threatening situations.
On the state level, Gibson said DCF is working on a review of its safety policies – in fact, that was underway just prior to Sobel’s death.
“Ironically, the day before Lara was murdered, we had our first statewide staff safety training,” said Gibson.
She added, “I think many people in upper management feel personally responsible for this – they don’t want people to be hurt.”
Gibson said DCF offices across the state will begin filing separate incident reports whenever a staff member was threatened or experienced client volatility so social workers and their supervisors can keep better track of safety risks.
“It’s a new discussion,” Gibson said. “It’s not what we talked about when we went to school for social work.”
In addition, Gibson said she feels there needs to be a culture shift in the community towards DCF, one that doesn’t blame individual social workers for what happens to parents or children.
DCF staff, said Gibson, should be treated as respected professionals working as part of a systematic response to child abuse, neglect or risk of harm – they should not be subject to verbal abuse in person or by phone, email, social media or even physical abuse.
“Over time, it’s becoming completely acceptable to verbally abuse my staff,” said Gibson. “While I understand it’s personal to a parent, [there has been] growing level of volatility over the years.”
And though social workers are trained to be patient and enduring in the face of threatening behavior because of the traumatized population they usually work with, Gibson said there has to be a threshold.
She added that, in some ways, Sobel’s death doesn’t shock her as much as it should.
“And that just breaks my heart,” she said.
How to go on
On Tuesday, Gibson and many of her staff attended Sobel’s funeral held in Montpelier.
“The services for Lara were overwhelmingly beautiful,” said Gibson. “It was standing room only. Everyone was overcome with emotion, either because they knew Lara personally or because of the sadness and devastation it had them feel. Her family described what an amazing person Lara was, how kind, gentle and dedicated she was to her family, her friends and her work.”
Directors and staff from other state departments helped man the phones in the St. Albans DCF office at the time, and it’s support like that, said Gibson that makes it easier to get through it all.
“People have just stepped up to help us in whatever way they can,” she said. “I have to say the outpouring of support from doctors, clinicians, service providers in terms of all the other departments in this building, teachers, community partners and foster parents – people have been unbelievably supportive.”
Gibson also said that people’s comments about Sobel’s kind, gentle approach to her work with families has reminded herself and DCF staff why they do the work they do.
“[The workers] really treasure the positive relationships that they have with families,” said Gibson. “People are holding onto that – we have to remember why we’re so committed to this work.”
Those relationships will guide safety considerations in the future, said Gibson. There’s a fine balance between building trust with clients while also assessing risks.
“We’re not going to turn into this hyper-vigilant society where we take children first and think about it later – we’re still thinking about it first,” said Gibson. “We know that taking a child is one of the most traumatic experiences for that child and their parents. People feel hopeless and helpless and angry.”
She added, “I think we’re just going to be more aware of when the risk is too great.”
Gibson said that the ultimate thing to keep in mind is that DCF is there to help families get through their struggles in order to change, stabilize their lives and create a better situation for everyone.
“The goal is through our engagement with them and through their own process with service providers, that [families] could come to a place where they could make these changes,” said Gibson. “That’s what we want.”
Several posters are hung in the St. Albans DCF district office, each with a quote from Sobel in her memory. They read: “We’re not here to make your life hard. We’re here to help you.”