Ventriss VPR Commentary on DCF [09.14.15]

“DCF”, a Vermont Public Radio Commentary by Lisa Ventriss

September 11, 2015 – When I first heard the news of Lara Sobel’s murder, my mind flashed to that particular parking lot. In addition to Department for Children and Families – or DCF – the building also houses the Agency of Education where I sometimes have meetings, so I know that parking lot. Next I thought of my sister, the Director of a different DCF office. She spent that Friday night repeating the news of Lara’s murder to each of her 20-plus colleagues.

Since then it seems, just as Americans of a certain age think in terms of Pre- and Post-9/11, Vermonters must now also look at life in terms of Pre- and Post-8/7. There’s no undoing it.

Since then, security officers must escort workers to and from their cars; protesters have threatened workers and their families on social media sites and in person; staffers have resigned, while others have continued on with renewed resolve.

Since then, it’s become evident that DCF has struggled to communicate the challenges it encounters to fulfill its mission to “foster the healthy development, safety, well-being, and self-sufficiency of Vermonters.” Yes, DCF took it on the chin publicly after the tragic deaths of two small children in the system, and recent budget cuts have reduced staffing even though caseloads are above the federal goal and calls to DCF Child Protection Line have increased 25 percent between 2010-2014.

But, it’s taken the murder of a DCF social worker for the public to see that rampant drug addiction, financial stress, domestic violence, poor education, mental illness, and joblessness have created a toxic environment for our children. And DCF has to walk through it every day.

Once a judge issues a written court order, case workers enter a client’s home and remove at-risk minors, and place them either in kinship or foster care. Other than having a deep and abiding commitment to children, it’s hard to imagine what mental preparation workers need to enter a home without knowing the risks that may await them there.

Still, my sister reminds me, when other options and budgets have been exhausted, these same DCF workers conduct drives for furniture and clothing, Christmas and birthday presents, books, toys, games, and school supplies from within their own networks of family and friends, so that a family or child in their care might have a bit of normalcy in their life.

Just as we can’t return to Pre-9/11, we can’t ever return to Pre-8/7. But, we can and must explore ways to prevent it from ever happening again.