MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Employees Association is calling for a cap on case loads for social workers and added security measures in the wake of the slaying of a Department for Children and Families worker in August.
Nancy Lynch, a legislative specialist for the VSEA, and Trissie Casanova, a social worker and chairwoman of the group’s Labor Management Committee, presented the union’s proposals to the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee Wednesday morning.
Worker safety has been a major concern for state workers following the August slaying of Lara Sobel, who was gunned down in the parking lot outside a DCF office in Barre.
Casanova told the panel that VSEA wants to cap case loads for social workers at no more than 15 per worker. In addition, the union wants to limit investigations per worker to no more than 17 at a time and have one administrative assistant for every 12 social workers. Supervisors should not be managing more than six social workers, she said.
“We’re recommending no more than 100 investigations or assessments per worker per year,” she said.
Other states, including Connecticut, cap the case loads of social workers, according to Casanova.
The union surveyed workers in the Family Services Division about whether high case loads were detrimental to worker safety. According to VSEA, 160 employees said yes while just five said no.
A report from VSEA provided to the committee Wednesday states that Vermont would need three times as many social workers than it currently has “to minimize risk of harm to workers and provide the customers in these very emotional and often complex cases with the appropriate attention in seeking the best outcomes for the family.”
Casanova said case load caps would allow time for DCF workers to review possible security threats “versus walking in without knowing because we didn’t have the time to check.”
The union also called for uniform and additional security at DCF work sites around the state. According to VSEA, all 12 buildings around the state where DCF has offices should have armed law enforcement as part of the security measures. Just three of the 12 — in Bennington, Burlington and Rutland — have armed law enforcement officers.
“We are requesting that security use trained law enforcement, not rental security,” Casanova said. “I think that every situation is different and there may be times when it may require additional support from law enforcement.”
The union also called on Wednesday for legislation clarifying that law enforcement personnel “shall” make themselves available for DCF home visits and for meetings at offices when requested.
Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, noted that existing statute requires law enforcement to respond when requested.
“I’m assuming from your statement that perhaps that’s not happening all the time,” she said. “I guess my question for us this afternoon is whether we need to put companion language in something else.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for a fiscal note from the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office on the costs associated with capping case loads and providing armed security.
“Even if you had the number of social workers, could you find them? I’m not necessarily for or against anything here, but I would caution us not to go too far without knowing what the cost is going to be or how we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee I recognized there’s a difficult budget year coming.”
Capping case loads could require more social workers than the state can afford, Pugh noted. She asked how the department would handle the cases that arise beyond a potential cap.
“I think that there are opportunities to be creative, perhaps creating an overflow unit,” Casanova said. “Our department can’t have a waiting list. Even though social workers have caps to their case load, we are still responsible for making sure that children are safe.”
Sears questioned whether VSEA would also be seeking additional security for probation and parole officers. VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said the union plans to present proposals for all state workers, including probation and parole officers who face the “same kind of dangerous situations.”
“We’re in the midst of doing a survey of all of members about their concerns,” Howard said.
Read the VSEA proposal below: