Gov. Peter Shumlin, with DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone at his left, announces a series of reforms to the agency in response to two recent child deaths.
With the Department for Children and Families under fire for the deaths of two small children allowed to stay in their troubled homes, Gov. Peter Shumlin today announced a series of reforms to bolster staff at the agency, streamline its operations and add scrutiny to decisions to reunify children with their guardians.
“It breaks my heart, and I know it breaks the heart of all Vermonters when we lose children to someone who is so empty hearted that they would take the life of a child,” Shumlin said during an afternoon press conference. “In the case of Dezirae and Peighton, we have as a state failed. These are the circumstances that give you sleepless nights.” He was referring to Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw, the children who died.
Shumlin announced that he was taking the following steps:
- Allowing DCF, using existing budgeted funds of about $1.6 million, to bring in 18 new social workers and six substance abuse screeners to decrease caseloads and enhance supervision.
- Requiring a supervisor in DCF’s central office to review all decisions to return children who have been seriously abused to their families. Currently, caseworkers can make those decisions.
- Calling for increased training for DCF and other state workers
- Ordering Human Services Secretary Doug Racine to develop a plan to reorganize DCF and potentially take away some the agency’s responsibilities. DCF was forged in 2004 from two independent agencies, the Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition and Health Services, and the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. The combined agency serves more than 200,000 of Vermonters in a variety of social programs. Shumlin said he is considering essentially undoing that move, and narrowing DCF’s focus to protecting children and strengthening families.
“The challenges the department has faced over the last several years raises legitimate concerns about whether the current structure can provide sufficient oversight across all the areas of responsibility,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin was careful to stress that the moves were not a direct result of perceived mistakes in the two cases — the death of two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in Rutland and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski. He declined to comment on those cases.
DCF’s caseworker staffing levels have long been a concern in Montpelier. Shumlin said ratios of caseworkers to families under supervision have come down from 1:20 to 1:17 under his watch, still well short of a legislatively mandated target of 1:12, which comports with national standards.
It was not immediately clear what the ratio would be with the addition of 18 caseworkers.
When asked why DCF did not previously require a supervisor to review decisions to reunify abused children with their families, DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said it had been discussed, but never implemented. He also said that the DCF’s main office had cut staff from from 96 to 66 in the past several years in an effort to preserve staff levels at field offices, where most caseworkers operate.
“I’ve asked myself that question,” Yacovone said. “In hindsight, do I wish we had changed that policy? Sure, absolutely.”
Shumlin has the power to unilaterally reorganize DCF if he decides to do it after receiving Racine’s report.
Administration officials say that the demand for DCF’s services exploded at the same time the agency was losing staffers during the recent recession.
Since 2008, the number of child abuse investigations has doubled, and the number of families subject to open DCF cases grew from 80 to 450, officials said.
Shumlin pinned part of the blame for that demand on the “rising tide of opiate addiction,” that he has made a priority in recent months.
“As long as addiction continues to rise, the caseload will rise,” Shumlin said.