MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is planning to move Department for Children and Families workers from their location at Barre City Place to a nearby courthouse, a direct response to the August shooting death of a DCF worker.
Administration Secretary Justin Johnson told reporters Friday that about 30 employees in DCF’s Economic Services Division will make the one-block move by the end of year. The employees will take over the fourth floor of the state-owned courthouse, he said. To accommodate them, the Washington County State’s Attorney’s office will move down to the courthouse’s second floor, he said.
“That group of people have been fairly traumatized,” he said. “In some ways, I think some of them sort of relive it every day.”
The administration is hoping the move will help the employees “move on from the tragedy and get back to the work that even on a good day is fairly emotional,” Johnson said.
The announcement Friday follows the death of DCF worker Lara Sobel on August 7. Police say Sobel was shot twice at close range with a high-powered rifle in the parking lot of Barre City Place by Jody Herring. Herring, who is in custody and awaiting trial, is also accused of killing three relatives in Berlin the day before shooting Sobel.
Frontline DCF workers in Barre and around the state have been concerned about security since Sobel’s death. Just this week, Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams, who wrested the gun from Herring in the aftermath of the shooting, told the Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee that state buildings, particularly courthouses, need more protections.
Williams said the state should invest in fences for parking lots to prevent incidents like Sobel’s shooting. He called for better video surveillance. There are cameras outside City Place, but Williams told the lawmakers there were blind spots and no camera was in a position to capture the area where the shooting took place. State employees also need training on how to recognize threats, he said.
Johnson said the administrations is looking to “enhance security and make the best of the security we have,” but declined to reveal what additional measures might be taken.
“At this point I’m not really prepared to go into the other security measures we’re considering because of security,” he said.
Any additional security measures at state offices will be done “by a building by building review,” according to Johnson. He said bulletproof glass has been used in the past at some places.
“We’ve actually had bulletproof glass in the entrance areas of different offices around the state. We’ve put it in. We’ve taken it out when we’ve had complaints that it’s difficult to see through,” he said.
The state is moving toward single points of public entry at state offices to control access. The state has also shifted to card access to buildings rather than keys.
“For years we gave out keys to people. I’m sure we kept track of most of them,” he said.
Nowadays we can control the card access from a central point. We can lock buildings down if we need to at the flick of a switch. Access control has improved a lot. It doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do looking at that.”
The administration is not looking to implement a set of baseline security measures for each office, according to Johnson.
“That sounds a bit too cookie cutter for me. They’re just so different,” he said. “We’re really looking at what we need to do in each individual case.”
Security at courthouses is currently handled by the Judicial Branch, which, in the past, has sought additional security measures but has been thwarted by funding approved by the legislative and executive branches. Johnson said there is an ongoing conversation with the judiciary about its needs.
“I just don’t know how that comes out yet. I think it’s fair to say that you’re likely to see some extra security in some places,” he said.
Whether security will be enhanced for the parking lots at state offices has not been determined. Johnson said the administration has “not spent a lot of time on the parking piece yet.”
The cost to move the workers is not expected to exceed $100,000. Johnson said the Department of Buildings and General Services should be able to fit the space inside the courthouse for DCF workers within its existing budget.
“It’s not like we are looking to do something that is next to impossible to do or involves sort of brand new construction or anything like that,” he said. “It’s real money, but as I’ve said all along, I’m prepared to spend a little money if it makes a difference. I think, on balance, this makes a difference for those folks.”
The administration also considered moving the employees to the McFarland State Office Building, also located in Barre. However, the courthouse move required displacing fewer people. Employees from the Agency of Natural Resources would have had to move out of McFarland an into City Place, which is not well-suited for their work, according to Johnson.
This one, in the end, is the one that had the least impact on other folks and seemed to meet most of the goals we have.
Some DCF employees, including the Office of Child Support, will remain at City Place.
The Vermont State Employees Association, which has advocated for moving DCF employees to a more secure location, said Friday that it supports the move.
“VSEA is pleased the State was able to find a place for the Barre DCF Family Services’ Division workers to relocate, where they can feel safer, ” VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said in a statement. “There is security at the courthouse, and this will hopefully give the DCF workers a measure of comfort and allow them to slowly try to get their working lives back to normal. VSEA appreciates the State’s willingness to listen to workers at the McFarland State Office Building, who questioned the costs around moving the DCF workers to McFarland and vice versa. The courthouse seems a better move.”