What's Behind The Online Criticism Of DCF Workers?

Aug 17, 2015

After a Department for Children and Families social worker was shot dead outside the office earlier this month, state officials condemned online comments critical of DCF workers.

Those comments are often just one side of a very complicated story, and that can make it hard to separate fact from fiction.

Buffy Spencer, who signed an online petition calling for DCF to be investigated for corruption, says her daughter was taken into custody by the state in January 2013. Two months later, she says, her boyfriend — who is a registered sex offender — moved out.

It was the second time she'd had one of her kids taken by the state. And that experience is increasingly common. Last year, the number of children in state custody rose by 33 percent.

Spencer says she knows it was wrong to have a registered sex offender living with her and her young daughter, and she knows that probably factored into the case against her.

"But I was in love with him, you know?" Spencer says.

Spencer says her daughter was taken to Brattleboro Retreat to be treated for depression.

They spoke occasionally, Spencer says, and she felt like she was on track to be reunited with her daughter.

Then her daughter was moved to Massachusetts, and Spencer says she hasn't heard anything since, and she's not sure what to do.

"Because I got my rights taken so I don't know from there if I can get ahold of them to see if they'll help me out," she said.

And that gets to part of the reason people get so heated about this — in some DCF cases, the state is truly stripping people of their rights as parents.

Adam Hall is a parent in Burlington who blogs as "Tenor Dad."

In a post after the central Vermont murders, he responded to people who'd posted online in support of Jody Herring, the accused killer who lost custody of her daughter in July. Herring was involved with DCF on multiple occasions before the shooting, according to her family.

"We get a lot of negative stories about the government did this and the government did that, and it's so hard to discern. I don't know all of these individual stories," he said in an interview.

Adam Hall is a Vermont blogger who has defended DCF against online supporters of the violence against caseworkers. Hall says he hears many complaints about the state taking children away but it's impossible to validate the claims.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

"Someone could come up and say 'The government took my children,' and my first thought is 'Well what did you do to make them take your children?'  'I didn't do anything!' 'Okay, well you must have done something, right?' I mean they don't come and take children for no reason, but I don't know if it was a good reason or not," Hall says.

That's another tricky piece of this. The public's inability to scrutinize DCF's mostly confidential work — and DCF's legal mandate not to share confidential case information — make it difficult to prove or disprove allegations that the state overstepped its authority.

In Buffy Spencer's case, for example, she feels like DCF caseworkers used her mental disability as an excuse to take her daughter. But DCF isn't allowed to disclose what factors went into the decision for privacy reasons, so in most cases the allegations are met with silence.

(DCF workers) don't come and take children for no reason, but I don't know if it was a good reason or not. - Adam Hall, blogger

Spencer, who lost her kids twice to DCF care, had a unique perspective on the recent tragedy.

"Lara Sobel was my investigator when my kids were taken the first time," she said.

And although she disagrees with some of the state's decisions, Spencer takes responsibility for what happened, and she respects the work of Sobel and her colleagues.

"I am the one that got her on her bad side because I refused to do what she asked me to do, but she is a good person," Spencer said of Sobel. "And she didn't deserve (what happened). None of them deserve any of that."

DCF social workers are back at work after Sobel's funeral last week, and officials are reviewing safety and security procedures to ensure that those charged with protecting Vermont's children are safe themselves.

Correction 8/18/2015 2:09 p.m. An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Herring lost custody of her daughter to DCF in July. The state did not take custody of the child, according to a spokesman for Gov. Peter Shumlin's office. The above text has been corrected.

Correction 8/18/2015 3:14 p.m. An earlier version of this story misstated Adam Hall's last name. The above text has been corrected.