A year after shootings, a struggle to regain a sense of safety

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On a muggy late July afternoon, Scott Williams sipped iced coffee outside a downtown Montpelier café when two fire trucks zoomed past, sirens blaring.

As the sound faded, the Washington County state's attorney asked for a moment and looked off across the street. Tears welled in his eyes, and he blinked them away.

Nearly a year earlier, on a different summer afternoon in a downtown Barre parking lot, he remembers wishing for sirens.

Looking back, he estimates that about 2½ minutes passed between the time when he saw a woman gun down a social worker and when he first heard sirens approaching.

"It felt like forever," he says.

On Aug. 7, 2015, four women were shot and killed in central Vermont: Julie Ann Falzarano, Rhonda Herring, Regina Herring and Lara Sobel.

Jody Herring was arrested and charged in all four deaths.

One year later, the ripples from that day continue to spread through their communities, the child protection system and the state of Vermont.

In court

Sobel was walking to her car after work shortly before 5 p.m. that Friday.

According to one witness, Jody Herring sat in her car watching the parking lot behind Barre City Place, the downtown office building that housed the Department for Children and Families field offices.

Herring allegedly shot Sobel twice in the torso and "upper extremities" with a Remington .270-caliber rifle.

Several witnesses, including Williams, intervened and subdued Herring afterward.

Minutes later, Herring was arrested. According to an affidavit, on the way to the Barre City Police Department, she "continued to laugh and talk about the victim." When police tried to interview her, she reportedly became angry, railing about "the injustices suffered at the hands of DCF."

The next day, a relative of Herring's discovered the bodies of three family members. Falzarano and Rhonda Herring and Regina Herring, Jody Herring's aunt and cousins, were found shot to death in their Berlin home.

Herring was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Sobel. The following week, she was charged with aggravated murder in the deaths of her aunt and cousins.

She pleaded not guilty to all four charges.

Shortly before the shootings, Jody Herring lost custody of her 9-year-old daughter in a case that Sobel was involved with. Prosecutors allege that the loss of custody motivated Herring in the killings.

According to court records, Jody Herring had been involved in custody proceedings with all three of her children. Records also show she had a complicated and lengthy history of mental health issues.

There have not been many developments in the court cases so far. One year later, Herring continues to be held in prison pending trial.

In April, her defense attorney David Sleigh filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that his client is incompetent to stand trial.

John Treadwell, the prosecutor on the case, has said the motion to dismiss is very unusual and outside the typical procedures to resolve questions of competency.

No hearings are currently scheduled in the case.

In the community

Williams, the Washington County state's attorney, was no stranger to trauma before Aug. 7, 2015. A veteran, he had undergone therapy for post-traumatic stress before.

After the shooting, Williams sought mental health support.

"I was fortunate to be able to plug immediately back in with my therapist," he said.

As the chief prosecutor in the county, Williams works frequently and closely with the Department for Children and Families. He knew both Jody Herring and Lara Sobel before the shooting.

Williams was a witness in the shooting in the Barre parking lot and recused himself from the case, which is being prosecuted by the Vermont attorney general's office.

In the following days and weeks, Williams recalled experiencing an array of physical and psychiatric symptoms. His body was in a state of almost constant agitation. He had difficulty sleeping. His level of vigilance went way up.

At times, an image from the day of the shooting would appear in the lower left corner of his vision. He likened it to an "old-fashioned 35 millimeter slide image" that would hover for a few minutes before disappearing.

Over several months, the frequency with which the image appeared tapered off. The last time he experienced it was around the holidays in December, he said.

Williams said people with experience in treating post-traumatic stress assured him that although it is disconcerting, it is also not at all unusual.

"If you don't have that available and you've got that kind of thing going on, you feel like you're crazy," Williams said.

Williams was honored for his actions by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in a ceremony in the Statehouse last year. He was also nominated for a Carnegie Medal for heroism.

"Given that technically I failed that day in that I got there too late, the idea that someone thought that I was worthy of consideration I'm just honored by that," he said.

Williams also reflected on how the shooting impacted him in his professional capacity. It has reinforced in him a need to approach cases individually and with a focus on the particular situations of the people involved, he said.

Meanwhile, Williams said he would like to see state government make specific changes in the wake of the shooting in Barre and in the context of mass shootings across the country in recent months.

"I think it is shortsighted for the executive branch of government here in Vermont, and Gov. (Peter) Shumlin's office particularly, to not be actively looking to move some money around in the budgets, with what I believe would probably be the active cooperation of the Legislature, to harden some of the more high-risk targets," Williams said.

In the weeks after the shooting last August, a group of community members began to gather to discuss how to address the aftermath in Barre and central Vermont.

Carl Hilton VanOsdall, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Barre, attended a vigil at the Berlin home where Falzarano and Rhonda Herring and Regina Herring were killed.

Sky Lantern

One of three heart-shaped sky lanterns mourners released in honor of Julie Falzarano, Regina Herring and Rhonda Herring. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

VanOsdall was part of the effort to address trauma in the community last summer. A group that included representatives of faith groups, local human service organizations and community centers, which formed after the shootings, still meets monthly, he said.

When traumatic events happen in a community, it can trigger a heightened level of stress with the realization that tragedies "could happen anywhere, including in our backyard," he said.

"A lot of people don't know how to deal with anxiety and fear," VanOsdall said. "It shows up in lots of complicated ways."

VanOsdall said the group concentrates on reaching across socio-economic and organizational divides to try to collaborate and heal together.

"Building relationships across whatever kinds of lines that tend to divide us, there's a way to be a stronger community that way," VanOsdall said.

In child protection

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz remembers very clearly where he was the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015.

He was at the WCAX studios for a television interview about emergency housing when one of the reporters told him there had been a shooting in downtown Barre.

He remembers feeling horrified, he said: "incredulous that something like this could happen here."

In 2015, many already considered Vermont's child protection system to be at a crisis point.

The deaths of two toddlers, Dezirae Sheldon, 2, and Peighton Geraw, 14 months, in 2014 cast a spotlight on child protection. Both children had been in state custody and returned to their parents before their deaths.

The number of children in state custody has dramatically increased in recent years — a trend that department officials have linked to growing rates of opiate addiction. In June, there were 1,392 children in state custody. Two years earlier, in fiscal year 2014, the average number of children in custody was 1,044.

As the number of children in the system rose, social workers' caseloads became more burdensome.

"There are lots of pressures and stresses on social workers in particular that were all occurring at the time," Schatz said.

The shooting of Sobel exposed a truth about the risky nature of social work that had previously lurked below the surface. Rep. Ann Pugh, of South Burlington, a professor of social work and chair of the House Human Services Committee, said the work is very challenging and "it can be dangerous."

The day after Sobel's death, DCF began keeping a log of complaints made against department staff. According to Schatz, as of the end of June, there had been 190 threats to DCF employees, the overwhelming majority of which were directed at members of the family services division, which handles child protection.

In the aftermath of the shooting, threats numbered between 20 and 30 per month, Schatz said. That has slowed in recent months to between 10 and 15 per month.

"It's still a high enough number to continue to raise concerns," Schatz said.

Several people have been arrested around the state after allegedly making threats against social workers, including a Barre woman who was charged in June with threatening to shoot a social worker and a police officer.

Pugh, who taught Sobel at UVM, said the threats against social workers are worrying. After the shooting, students of social work were required to talk with field instructors about safety.

On one hand, Pugh is hopeful that communities in Vermont are more actively participating in keeping children safe. She cited figures from DCF showing that more mandatory reporters are contacting the department when there are concerns over child abuse or neglect.

But Pugh raised concerns that the threats against social workers are part of a wider shift in discourse involving violence.

"I'm very sad and I'm very scared about the tenor that Vermont and the country are coming to," Pugh said. "Whether it's in social media, whether it's in anonymous comments, or whether it's in public comment, it seems to be OK to make really aggressive and threatening comments."

Concerns over the safety of social workers motivated lawmakers to create an enhanced penalty for assaulting them, similar to enhanced penalties for attacks on first responders. That bill, which the governor signed into law this year, also established a criminal penalty for making serious threats.

There has been a fresh effort to focus on safety of social workers and state employees. A number of security measures, including safety trainings, have been implemented at several different levels of DCF and the Agency of Human Services. Last month, the administration announced plans to begin installing physical security enhancements, like bulletproof glass and panic buttons, in offices around the state.

However, the Vermont State Employees' Association has questioned the efficacy and timing of these improvements.

In late 2015, Shumlin unveiled a plan to inject additional resources into DCF and partners in child protection, including the defender general's office and the courts, in an attempt to mitigate the influx of children into state custody.

However, many of the stresses on the child protection system a year ago continue to be problematic.

As of June, social workers across the state were carrying an average caseload of 17.9 families each — far above the recommended caseload, which ranges between 12 and 15.

Schatz said DCF has hired people to fill many of the 35 new positions the Legislature created this year. Those workers will be able to take on full caseloads once they have been in the job six months, and Schatz expects that will help drive down the rate.

The shootings in August last year put a focus on protecting the safety of the players in the child protection system, he said.

"They're all people with big hearts, and they're doing this work because they care," Schatz said.


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