Review critical of workplace safety policy

MONTPELIER, Vt. – An inspection has found the state child welfare agency’s safety policy didn’t have comprehensive measures to protect employees from workplace assaults when a social worker was shot dead outside her office building last August.

The Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration completed the review of the Department for Children and Families on Friday. A letter with the findings has been given to the commissioners of the child welfare agency and the Department of Buildings and General Services and was obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“Our inspection found that: the State DCF had a workplace violence policy; the policy was not fully developed and implemented; and, did not contain comprehensive measures to protect workers from assaults at the workplace,” safety administration manager Daniel Whipple wrote in the letter. “It cannot be said that a more comprehensive, fully developed and implemented policy would have prevented the fatality.”

Social worker Lara Sobel was gunned down outside her state office building in Barre as she was leaving work on Aug. 7. A woman whose 9-year-old daughter had been taken into state custody, Jody Herring, shot Sobel twice with a hunting rifle and then was tackled by bystanders, police said.

Sobel, a 14-year veteran of the child welfare agency, had handled Herring’s daughter’s case, and authorities have said Herring was upset over losing custody. Police have said they believe Herring shot and killed three of her own relatives in the adjoining town of Berlin before going to kill Sobel.

Herring, who’s from Barre, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the deaths of her cousins Regina Herring and Rhonda Herring, her aunt Julie Falzarano and Sobel.

The safety administration recommended better training of child welfare agency workers, better record keeping of threats and more workplace violence controls such as locks, lighting and barriers. It also recommended an annual review of the safety program and development of a response team responsible for immediate care of victims and debriefing with victims and co-workers.

The child welfare agency said it will continue working to improve employee security. The agency’s commissioner, Ken Schatz, said Tuesday that a worker safety policy has been proposed and the agency has added training sessions and asked staff members to report threats to the commissioner’s office, not just to the buildings department, so it can better understand the nature of them and where they are occurring.

“Obviously, the tragedy of the killing of Lara Sobel continues to weigh heavily on our minds,” Schatz said, adding that he appreciated how the Department of Labor, which oversees the safety administration, was looking into workplace violence issues.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposes stepped-up security at state buildings.


This story has been corrected to show the agency’s name is the Department for Children and Families, not the Department of Children and Families.