Op-Ed: Ensuring we protect Vermont's children and support our families
May 21, 2014 -- The recent deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw have caused all of us to question what more we can do to keep Vermont's children safe. We know that challenging family circumstances, substance abuse, violence and neglect all present significant risks to children. The marked increase in opiate addiction adds new dangers as addicts too often spread violence and crime to their families and their communities.
Families and communities have important responsibilities in helping protect children from abuse and neglect, but the state also plays an important role through the Department for Children and Families (DCF), law enforcement, and the courts. We know that too often the children who come to the attention of the Department already have experienced significant harm or trauma at the hands of family or others in their lives. We must make certain that our DCF is doing everything possible to increase the chances for a safe and secure upbringing for all children.
I have launched reviews of the circumstances that led to these recent deaths, to be conducted both internally, by an independent review panel with expertise to analyze such incidents, and Vermont State Police. The Legislature has also convened review panels to address this issue. Meanwhile, the Chittenden States Attorney, Rutland States Attorney and Attorney General's offices are reviewing the possibility of criminal action on the part of family members and all others involved in the care of Dezirae and Peighton.
I feel strongly, however, that we cannot wait to take initial action to address some of the issues already identified in state policies and practices. We will never be able to say whether these changes would have changed the tragic outcomes for Peighton and Dezirae. But we do believe the steps outlined below will help children and strengthen families going forward.
Implement new policies that will heighten the review standards in certain cases.
Immediately after the initial review of the circumstances that led to the recommendation to reunite Dezirae Sheldon with her biological mother, DCF reviewed its policies involving return of custody and reunification with parents. As a result, DCF now requires senior leadership in its Central Office to review all cases in which a child has experienced serious physical abuse, and reunification with the parent may be contemplated; in addition, that Central Office oversight will extend to later reviews of reunification when prior allegations of physical abuse are present.
In addition, DCF has revised its policy regarding situations in which a young child in DCF custody is living with the parent in a residential or other supported setting. The revised policy requires DCF to ensure that a trial reunification period will not begin until after the parent is discharged from the residential or other supported setting.
Soon after Dezirae's tragic death, I asked that an independent body, the Vermont Citizens Advisory Board (VCAB), review the State's handling of that case, and I have extended my request to include Peighton Geraw's case. While the VCAB has the responsibility to independently examine child protection policies and practices, a special VCAB panel has been created for these reviews, consisting of members with significant expertise and experience in child abuse matters. VCAB will review all aspects of the handling of these cases to determine whether DCF policies and practices were appropriately followed and are adequate to ensure the safety of Vermont's children, as well as suggest changes, if any, needed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
In addition, the Legislature created a Committee on Child Protection. My administration will cooperate with that Committee to examine Vermont's laws, policies and procedures, review procedures in other jurisdictions, consider federal requirements, and make recommendations to improve our child protection system.
Evaluate reorganization of DCF to better target the core mission.
I have also requested that Human Services Secretary Doug Racine evaluate and recommend steps that might be taken to reorganize the Department for Children and Families to improve DCF's primary mission to protect children and support families.
In 2004, the former Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) and Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition and Health Services (PATH) were combined to form the current Department for Children and Families. The combined DCF has a single commissioner and management structure, and the scope of work is very broad, including six complex divisions with very different core missions. Together, those divisions serve over 200,000 Vermonters. The challenges the Department has faced over the last several years raise legitimate concerns about whether the current structure can provide sufficient oversight across all areas of responsibility.
I have requested that Sec. Racine present a recommendation to me by Aug. 1st to reorganize the functions of DCF to make the oversight better aligned with the Department's core mission.
Strengthen DCF resources to increase its ability to respond to children in need.
Since I entered office in 2011, improvements have been made in DCF staffing levels. However, workload and case levels have outpaced budget and staff increases. Since 2008, the number of child abuse reports the department must investigate has doubled, while staffing has not kept apace.
The state has worked hard to decrease DCF caseload staffing ratios, but they still are significantly higher than the 12 to 1 ratio based upon national best practices. Higher caseloads further increase the risk in a Department that routinely deals in fragile and dangerous situations. Rising caseloads have forced the Department to rely on temporary workers more than in the past, and increasing turnover among the ranks of highly stressed social workers has resulted in supervisors routinely taking case assignments to the detriment of supervision of social workers.
In addition, DCF has far fewer managers and specialists in the main DCF office to support district casework than existed a decade ago. Meanwhile, funding for those community providers that assist DCF in its mission remains the same as it was 10 years ago.
To help ameliorate these issues, DCF will immediately recruit 18 on-the-ground social workers, a Child Safety Manager to conduct expert supervision of cases across divisions, and six substance abuse case specialists, along with associated Central Office management support, to bolster its child protection efforts. This plan will be paid for within the already approved and existing DCF budget, as required by the legislation implementing the Pilot.
Increase training for DCF and for other state agencies and branches regarding parental drug addiction and abuse of very young children.
It is plain that the rise of drug addiction in Vermont, particularly in use of opiates, is causing significant increased risks to children, and more training is needed for DCF workers to deal with this new reality.
DCF has requested assistance from the National Resource Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare to review DCF's protocols for decision-making in cases in which parental substance abuse affects the safety of children. DCF will also request assistance from national experts, such as the Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, to ensure specific focus on families with very young children who cannot yet speak for themselves and are most vulnerable.
DCF will also work with stakeholders to develop further training for those in law enforcement, the legal community, the medical community, the judiciary and all others who play a role in the decisions that affect the safety of children.
While some may argue over the proper scope of government intervention in difficult family situations, on this we agree - we all have a responsibility to protect our children. Nothing we do will bring back Dezirae and Peighton, nor can we expect to stop all such tragedies in the future. Yet we have an obligation to do our best to protect the most vulnerable among us. These measures will strengthen our ability to fulfill that obligation for all Vermont's children.