A Vermont Department of Children Families (DCF) worker was murdered last month. The lead suspect is the mother of a child that was previously removed from her care and placed in foster care. This tragedy illustrates the challenges and risks that workers have in the field of serving at risk youth.
Wikipedia defines a first responder "as an employee of an emergency service who is likely to be among the first people to arrive at and assist at the scene of an emergency, such as an accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. First responders typically include police, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians." Although not clearly stated, child welfare and juvenile justice workers are clearly "first responders" who are often called to make life and death decisions. Compelled by a calling to help youth and families, they routinely expose themselves to unknown environments and individuals. They do this despite the likelihood of enduring post-secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, unfair treatment in the media, and risk of physical harm, including death.
In the past 21 years, I have seen many things. I was menaced by an irate step-father with a handgun in my first year of employment. I’ve been threatened by teenage youths in the juvenile justice system that I was trying to help. I was exposed to the aftermath of a major traumatic event where a client murdered his counselor and another client, then committed suicide in front of other agency staff. I saw my pregnant wife, a former Child Protective Services worker, visit parents of children in foster care with little information about their criminal or social history, or the environment she would enter. As an administrator, I witnessed numerous threats to my staff.
The tragedy in Vermont is not the first, just one of the more recent. I can only hope that the youth services field takes an opportunity to grieve appropriately, then takes action to help the "first responders" be better equipped to deal with potentially threatening incidents. I believe that a true focus on the following is a good place to start:
Educate and train staff by providing Field Safety Training for all field workers. Train them to identify and mitigate risk and take actions to increase safety. Implement simulation training that gives them a sense of the environments they will be placed in and how to mitigate threats to self and others.
Develop policies & procedures that enhance the practice of safety measures for staff in the office as well as in the field.
Support staff by providing the needed supervision, tools, training, and organization culture that makes staff safety paramount, not secondary.
All of the above are critical to improvement. However, the most important action we can take is to drastically improve the amount of information readily available to a field worker. By integrating data and making it available in a usable format we can improve the quality and amount of information a worker has. This includes information about the child, family, and other parties to the case, directly or indirectly involved, as well as the environment where they reside.
This will greatly assist in identifying potential risk as workers engage children, parents, and other family members. This can be done, but must be come top of mind for state and local government agencies, as well as those in the private sector. I would encourage “first responders” to appropriately challenge their leadership to make staff safety a priority, and not another initiative in the queue.
My heart goes out to the family, friends, and co-workers of Lara Sobel, as well as other "first responders" working with our most vulnerable youth who have been impacted by the tragedy. I applaud all who have committed their lives to ensure our children have an opportunity to become successful adults.