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The Brattleboro community is reeling from the horrific events of the past week. First there was the shooting death on Birge Street last Thursday night, for which there is still no suspect in custody. This comes on the heels of rising rates of vandalism and burglaries that already had residents and businesses on edge.

Everyone is left wondering, what has become of our quaint and quirky, one and only Brattleboro? How much more can our compassionate community take?

Then, just four days later came the murder — shocking for its brutality — of Leah Rosin-Pritchard, a beloved social worker at the local shelter for transitional housing. She was a woman who dedicated her professional life to helping the most at-risk among us get back on their feet. One Groundworks client we talked to spoke glowingly of her work as a counselor before being promoted to shelter coordinator.

“She bent over backwards to go out of her way to help people,” he said.

He also praised other frontline employees at Groundworks, but did not have kind words for upper management, whom he blamed for ignoring previous warnings and providing inadequate security and training for the Morningside House staff.

That certainly leaves us all with a lot to unpack regarding the what, why and how this tragedy befell the house on Royal Road, and hard questions for all involved. Why was the murder suspect allowed to stay at the shelter? Were allegations of previous physical assaults ignored or overlooked? What security protocols are in place for residents and staff at the shelter? What is the screening process for clients? Are there enough mental health screeners to do the job, and are they adequately trained?

By many accounts, Groundworks Collaborative, which runs the Morningside House shelter, does an amazing job with the finite resources it has. The organization provides different levels of housing support for our neediest citizens, as well as help with getting food and access to counseling and various health services. But the hard truth is that many of these clients are on the fringes of society and really struggling, some with serious substance abuse and mental health issues. For them, Groundworks is their lifeline.

If a client gets kicked out of a shelter or other support facility, where are they to go? In most cases they end up on the street, living in homeless camps where drugs and mental health issues are left unchecked and further aggravated. In this environment there are too often no services at all for the people who need them, many of whom become either victims of crime or a broader nuisance and threat to the community.

Unfortunately, our town, state and national mental health services, both in- and out-patient, are woefully inadequate to deal with a crisis that is increasingly out of control in America. There just aren’t enough people, resources and facilities to handle the load.

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This is not the first time a local resident with mental health issues has slipped through the proverbial cracks in the system. Recently we reported on a man facing more than 80 criminal charges, most of them minor, because in his schizophrenic mind he thinks it’s OK to sneak into someone’s home in the middle of the night. Everyone from his family to the public defender and prosecutor to the judges on the bench are concerned that an unsuspecting homeowner will one day kill him out of fear and surprise. But while everyone agrees he’s not competent to stand trial, mental health screeners have said he doesn’t need 24-hour care because he has shown no violent tendencies. So back out on the street he goes.

The majority of people with mental health issues are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.

What happened earlier this week at Morningside House, however, was an aberration in the sheer savagery of the attack. Other extreme cases have manifested themselves in the never-ending mass shootings that seem to be a uniquely American thing.

When the Brattleboro Reformer published the story recounting some of the grizzly details of the attack at Morningside House they received pushback from a few people who were appalled at the graphic nature of the story. So were they. No one at the Reformer relishes covering a story like this, and staff there have the deepest sympathy for all those affected by this tragedy. But the paper felt it would be a disservice to the community and to all potential future victims to present a watered-down version of events. The Reformer ultimately felt the story needed to be shocking to snap everyone out of their complacency about the true nature of these violent crimes, and to propel more people to action.

Sadly, this is not the first time a Vermont social worker has been killed in the line of duty. In November 2017, a Vermont woman was sentenced to life in prison for a quadruple murder in August 2015. She pleaded guilty to killing two of her cousins and their mother at a home in Berlin. She then went to Barre to hunt down a caseworker for the Vermont Department for Children and Families. Investigators said she blamed the four victims for her loss of child custody, and wanted revenge.

The commissioner of the Vermont DCF at the time, Ken Schatz, told a local TV station that the sentence sends a clear message that violence against social workers has no place in this state or anyplace else. But now here we are eight years later, mourning another social worker whose life saw a violent end.

Clearly we need to do better. And that means all of us, from the local level all the way up. We need more facilities for in-patient and out-patient services; more training for front-line workers in social services, schools, police and other first responders; less stigma so people are more willing to seek out help. And of course, we need vastly more funding to pay for all of this. That will be the sticking point, of course, as many are sure to say we can’t afford the budget and taxes increases that would require. But the cost of not fixing America’s mental health crisis is far greater.

Enough is enough. It is important that we as a community recognize the horrific violence that occurred this week at Groundworks, and our outrage must finally drive our local, state and federal leaders to take needed steps to address the crisis. The time to get serious about this is long overdue.


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