A still-shaken county prosecutor who held a dying social worker in his arms said Wednesday that additional security measures and training should be implemented to protect state workers he said remain at risk.
Scott Williams, the Washington County State's Attorney, implored — once stopping to regroup, his eyes later watering — a panel of lawmakers to take the additional security steps at state buildings, including courts.
Williams said state employees cannot and should not be walled off from the public, but that ongoing security holes at the courthouse where he works and the nearby building where the slaying occurred keep him up at night and he said the 150 workers there remain fearful.
"I'm not here to advocate that I should have an up-armored Tahoe, and body armor and bodyguards, but I am here to say our employees need to feel you guys really understand how ongoing the terror is of future events, and that we need to take steps to remedy that," Williams said.
The state's attorney comforted Lara Sobel in her final moments Aug. 7 as she lay bleeding to death in the parking lot of the Barre City state office building, moments after being shot, allegedly, by a disgruntled mother whose 9-year-old child had been taken away by the state. Williams also helped disarm and apprehend the alleged shooter, Jody Herring of Barre, who has pleaded not guilty and remains behind bars. Herring has also been charged with killing three relatives she believed played a role in losing her child.
Williams told a special legislative panel Wednesday that all state workers, including social workers at the Department for Children and Families, should be trained in "situational awareness" and that security improvements need to be made at state buildings. In Barre, he said there is too little stopping someone from entering the courthouse or the building where Sobel worked and inflicting harm. He recommended additional security measures including an entry "airlock" where people could be screened, bulletproof glass, fences around the parking lot and perhaps adding more armed guards at the courthouse, which is near the parking lot of City Place, where Sobel worked in a DCF office and which has a gym where Williams was working out.
The prosecutor told the members of the joint House-Senate child protection oversight committee that the Sobel shooting had a profound effect on his family and particularly his 11-year-old daughter, who he said later now uses a nightlight she gave up when she was 2.
"I had to come home and tell my kids they almost lost their Dad, and that's not an easy conversation to have, and I can see it's not an easy thing for an 11-year-old to deal with," Williams said after the hearing. His son, 14, is showing less emotion on the surface, he said, but is also clearly affected.
So is Williams. He held the 48-year-old Sobel, wife, mother of two daughters and 14-year veteran social worker, as she died and could have been a victim too. Three weeks ago on his Facebook page, he wrote: "Looking forward to the day that I will be comfortable in public, not need to sit with my back to a wall, and not assess everyone I see for threat potential."
After the hearing, Williams told VTDigger: "For years and years, I'd have my back to the wall, I wasn't into crowds, and I'd gotten away from that. So I'm definitely still quite reactive that way. I don't like going out to restaurants now again."
Williams, who served in the Navy, said he has been working with a Veterans Administration counselor. Williams said he failed in the past to properly address issues that have bothered him. He has publicly discussed having post-traumatic stress.
Several proposals are under discussion to move the Barre DCF offices and Human Services Agency Secretary Ken Schatz told the legislative panel the department was "close" to a decision.
Williams said it was impossible to protect everyone all the time, but he urged the panel to focus on issues such as training and easy security fixes, not the misplaced focus law enforcement puts on courthouse security issues like "the 60-year-old grandmother with knitting needles showing up for jury duty."
Williams told the lawmakers he recently read the new best-seller about the assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and that the shooter said no one had questioned him at the rally. The state's attorney expressed frustration that law enforcement officers charged with guarding the parking lot in the days after Sobel was killed were not, he said, "paying attention.''
There's no point spending money on resources if people are not doing the job properly, he said.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the oversight committee, called Williams' testimony "riveting."
"It was overwhelming. I know how difficult this is for Scott. I've met with him on a number of occasions. So this particular event was difficult for him to talk to the committee about. He did a tremendous job advancing some of the issues of worker safety," Sears said.
While many of the recommendations would have to be approved by the Institutions or Appropriations committees, Sears said the panel could add weight to any suggestions.
"I think the pressure is on us as legislators and the governor to provide as safe a possible work site as possible. There's no guarantees. Somebody could follow you home, but we can improve the system," Sears said. "There's no quick cure, but I think there are a lot of things we can do to improve worker safety."
Also testifying was Shannon Morton, a frayed social worker who said she had been advocating for safety improvements for years.
"I sit here as a nearly maxed-out social worker," she said, adding she was emotionally exhausted and representative of frontline case workers.
She and others called for more caseworkers, better coordination and cooperation between other agencies, including the police, some of whom have refused to go along with social workers going on a call that could result in a child being taken into custody.
"We are stretched ridiculously thin and barely able to meet all of our mandates, let alone enhance, develop or foster relationships with folks who don't understand our agency or don't have it in their own capacity to be of service to us," said Morton, who is serving on a safety committee for social workers.
State officials are reviewing all state buildings for safety issues and Morton said social workers will soon receive a two-day safety training.
"I can tell you I have hope our agency will improve" and will be able to maintain a strong staff, she said. "The people on the ground trying to do this work are doing the best they can with" increased caseloads and the complexity of cases.
"I'm worried we're creating a system that isn't going to be able to maintain the workers that are in it for the right reasons and want to do this work," Morton said.
"But," she said, "I fear what's being left undone."
Social worker Shannon Morton addresses lawmakers Wednesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger