MONTPELIER — Threats against Department for Children and Families have spiked since the killing last month of a social worker, state officials told a legislative committee Friday, as the Agency of Human Services and DCF work to boost security measures for employees.
DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee Friday that 17 threats have been made against his staff since 48-year-old Lara Sobel was gunned down outside her office building in Barre on Aug. 7. The alleged killer, Jody Herring, 40, has also been charged with murdering three family members in the killing spree that law enforcement officials say was driven by a custody dispute Herring had with the state.
Schatz said 16 of the threats since Sobel’s death have been made against family services workers while one was made to a worker in the department’s economic services division. Employees have been instructed to report all threats, Schatz told the panel.
Some of the threats have referenced Sobel’s death, according to Schatz, and at least one has included a threat to “slit staff members’ throats.” Another threat came from someone who said “all social workers should be shot,” he said.
“Our staff are fearful and legitimately so,” Schatz said. “Our work performance is effected by this.”
DCF has looked to boost security on a temporary basis in some instances.
“We’ve had to ask for additional security at six different offices around the state based on threatening situations,” Schatz said. “The reality is we are seeing an increased number of threats to our social workers in the weeks following the killing of Lara Sobel.”
State officials from AHS, DCF, the Department of Buildings and General Services and the Department of Public Safety have undertaken a review of security protocols and procedures for state workers since the killing of Sobel.
Schatz said he others realized that DCF did not have a good system to track threats. A staff safety committee that existed before Sobel was killed has been meeting to address security measures. He said the department is looking to create a base-level of security for all offices and continues to review measures for workers in the field and when they arrive and leave their workplaces.
DCF is also making an effort to ensure all threats, even those that have been pervasive in online comments on media websites as well as social media, are dealt with.
“The vitriolic, hate-filled comments on websites just cannot go unanswered,” Schatz said.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said law enforcement officers are investigating all threats leveled at state workers.
“Yes, it is a mistake to just blow them off and just say, ‘Well, it comes with the job.’ We can’t say that anymore,” he said. “We are following through on them. Where we identify the person there are actually troopers knocking at their door saying, ‘We’ve got to talk.’”
Flynn told the panel that his department is working with others on a systemic approach to addressing threats and ensuring the safety of workers. It must be “a long-range approach,” he said, and all employees must be trained on how to recognize threats and how to appropriately respond to them.
“It’s affecting people’s work performance. It’s affecting their attitude when they go in to work,” he said. “So as we look at the process, as we move forward, we’ve also got to be aware of that.”
“This is a big issue and there’s no one silver shot to it to get this whole thing resolved,” Flynn added.
Flynn said he is looking at the issue broadly and wants to ensure that everyone involved in child protection — day care providers, people providing services to parents and children, lawmakers, prosecutors, social workers and others — are all safe.
“Is it a reasonable leap to think that somebody may have a concern about the people making the laws? Absolutely,” he said. “It’s not just confined to DCF workers.”
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and vice chairman of the Child Protection panel, asked what role the media plays in regulating threatening comments.
“Doesn’t media have an obligation to look at some of the comments that are posted?” he asked. “It seems to me that to try to determine what’s credible and not credible … is awfully difficult.”
Flynn said media organizations must determine on their own how to regulate comments. Law enforcement will investigate when they step over the line, he said.
“Media ethics, that’s up for those folks to talk about, as far as what they believe is appropriate. I think there is a very careful line that needs to be walked as far as First Amendment rights,” he said. “The question becomes when does that step over the line and become more than an exercise of free speech.”
Police and state officials are dealing with a changing social culture, Flynn said. Police officers are being more closely scrutinized, he noted, and violent actions are more pervasive in general.
“When we see two television reporters and we’re watching it on live TV, we’re living in a different climate right now, a different atmosphere, where somehow people think they can take action into their own hands,” he said, referenced the recent killing of two journalists in Virginia.
It is a “societal issue,” he said. “We can’t necessary legislate our way out of those things.”
Flynn also issued a dire warning — people with the desire and wherewithal to carry out a threat are difficult to stop.
“There’s a likelihood it can occur,” he said.
Dawn O’Toole, chief operating officer at AHS, also issued sobering testimony.
“We know that we don’t have a concerted, consistent effort across all our state buildings about emergency planning,” she said.
BGS has just two people focused on building security, and AHS has one facilities person, she said. O’Toole said 70 percent of her time is now focused on security issues.
“Everyone has this heightened sense of awareness, this heightened sense of anxiety. People are asking daily for more security,” she said.
She said the state does not have the resources to provide armed security guards at each state office.
“Armed security is cost-prohibitive. We simply can’t have armed security,” she said.
However, the state is reviewed security measures for its buildings, including metal detectors and panic buttons, O’Toole said.
Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, noted those measures would not have saved Sobel.
“None of that would have protected Lara Sobel, so we have that reality,” she said.
O’Toole said officials are worried about copy-cat attacks following Sobel’s death.
“To be perfectly frank, I think there is still clear, imminent risk, especially Barre,” she said. “I think there are people out there who suffer from mental illness.”
The committee was created under Act 60 in the 2015 legislative session, the law that is more widely known as S.9 — a child protection bill. It’s charged with oversight of systems in Vermont dealing with protecting children. The committee is authorized to meet up to six times when the Legislature is not in session and as often as needed during the session.