Social workers with the Department for Children and Families are calling on lawmakers to approve changes to make their caseloads more manageable.
The group is asking that lawmakers consider limiting the number of children each social worker works with to between 12 and 15. Currently social workers may carry an average 17.7 cases at a time and each case may include several children.
Trissie Casanova, a social worker from St. Albans, presented [recommendations from the Vermont State Employees' Association] at a Wednesday meeting of the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee.
"Workers can't get to everything that's being required of them to do," Casanova told lawmakers.
Safety is a primary concern for social workers who have been subject to ongoing threats in the aftermath of the shooting death of Lara Sobel, a colleague who worked out of the Barre office. Workers are calling for armed law enforcement or security to be stationed at a dozen buildings that house staff of the family services division across the state. Currently, only three of the buildings have security.
They also want police officers to assist social workers as needed for office or site visits with families.
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said her committee will weigh the recommendations ahead of the legislative session. A former social worker and a current professor of social work at the University of Vermont, Pugh sees relationships as key to the functionality of the child protection system.
"For workers to be safe and for children to be safe, workers need to have the ability to form relationships with children and families," Pugh said.
Reducing caseloads for social workers is a priority for Pugh, and she's willing to explore ways that lawmakers might do that. But she also sees a need for a broader change in Vermont.
"Community policing won't keep kids safe, more social workers won't keep kids safe, more judges so that the court process goes faster won't keep kids safe forever," Pugh said. "I mean, this is a community issue and as a community we need to come together and say violence toward kids is not OK."
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, raised concerns about security for people who work in the child protection system who are not DCF employees.
"DCF isn't an isolated system," Flory said. "It extends far beyond the social workers, and I want to make sure that we are not hitting one end without the ability to follow it through."
Flory said she's heard from foster parents who have concerns for safety. Flory herself has gotten threats, while working as an attorney representing a child in court and as a guardian ad litem.
In addition to safety trainings for social workers, she'd like to see those protocols available for others involved in the system.
During the hearing, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, called for a fiscal note to assess the cost associated with the VSEA recommendations.
Flory also raised concerns about resources, but she said it is important to consider the options.
"I don't mean this to sound cavalier, but if the goal is to create a risk-free society, that's not going to happen," Flory said. "But to take reasonable precautions I think is important."
Meanwhile, a child protection reform bill passed last session included directions on when law enforcement officers are required to accompany social workers in their line of duty — particularly in situations that are likely to become heated.
However, the committee has heard from social workers that it can be difficult to reach law enforcement officers for support on field visits.
Reached for comment Wednesday, local law enforcement agencies said they try to assist social workers, but the calls put a strain on police budgets. Bringing a child into custody can take several hours, and that means fewer officers may be available to respond to other calls.
Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston said his department rarely has the manpower to adequately support DCF workers. They have two officers during the day, and assisting with family services visits reduces their capacity to respond to calls.
"Unfortunately, we don't have the staffing to send somebody all the time," Johnston said. "It all depends upon what kind of calls come in during the day and what officers are tied up for."
Barre Police Chief Tim Bombadier said when DCF workers call for help the department often relies on off-duty officers to ensure that there are enough people on staff.
"I think it's a system response and we need to do what we can do to respond to each other's needs, respond to welfare of the child, and do so in as timely a manner as possible," Bombadier said.