DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone and Gov. Peter Shumlin
Updated at 6:33 p.m.
Three weeks after Gov. Peter Shumlin fired Agency of Human Services secretary Doug Racine, another AHS leader is on his way out the door.
Commissioner Dave Yacovone announced Wednesday that he’s leaving the troubled Department for Children and Families to take an undisclosed job outside state government. He’ll be replaced by AHS general counsel Ken Schatz, a former Burlington city attorney.
Yacovone disclosed his plans Wednesday at a hastily-called press conference at Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Montpelier office. He was joined at the podium by a cadre of DCF leaders and by the governor himself, who praised Yacovone and insisted his departure was voluntary.
“Dave Yacovone has served the state as commissioner with extraordinary distinction,” the governor said. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him for his leadership of [a department] that is one of the most important for Vermonters that are struggling, for Vermont’s children and for families that need us.”
At the urging of his wife, Yacovone explained, he applied two months ago to a new job closer to his Morrisville home. He declined to disclose where he’s going, citing the wishes of his next employer.
“Let me be clear about this: This was my choice. In fact, several of the governor’s staff have asked me to reconsider. It’s almost humorous,” he said. “There’s no backstory here.”
DCF has come under intense scrutiny since the deaths of two toddlers — Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney and Peighton Geraw of Winooski — under the department’s supervision. Republican leaders and an advocacy group called Justice for Dezirae had called for Yacovone’s and Racine’s ousters.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon, the group said it “would like to applaud Governor Shumlin for taking the real first steps in protecting Vermont’s children.”
But throughout Wednesday’s press conference, Shumlin maintained that Yacovone was leaving on his own terms.
“I hope that we’ve just made very clear that this is a choice that David made with his wife and family many months ago, based upon what he sees as best for his future, his life at this time,” the governor said. “All I can tell you is if you’re questioning what we’re saying, I would caution you.”
Shumlin noted the stresses of his commissioner’s job, calling it “one of the toughest jobs in state government,” and Yacovone acknowledged the struggles he’s faced since he was appointed commissioner in 2011.
“It would be disingenuous of me to say this has been a walk in the park,” he said. “It’s hard work, and everybody knows that.”
One of six departments in the Agency of Human Services, DCF provides food, fuel and monetary assistance to low-income Vermonters and oversees child protective services.
Asked why he would take such a difficult job, Schatz said, “That’s a good question!”
But, he continued, “I have a passion for issues related to children and families — that we can make conditions better in our state. One of the wonderful things about Vermont is that we’re small enough, that we’re connected enough, that we really can make positive change.”
In addition to serving as Burlington’s city attorney, Schatz has worked as a juvenile defender in the state defender general’s office and as a staff attorney for both the Mental Health Law Project and the Vermont Developmental Disability Law Project.
Interim AHS Sec. Harry Chen, who temporarily left his job as commissioner of the Department of Health to replace Racine, said at the press conference that he was “grateful for [Schatz’s] willingness to step up.”
“I have to admit that, even at the health department, I’ve been trying to get Ken to work for me,” he said.
Chen said an ongoing review of DCF’s structure and staffing remained on-track and would be completed early next month.
Asked whether he anticipated any further leadership changes in the next few months, Shumlin said, “Well, it’s a tough question to answer honestly… I mean, I didn’t, frankly, know three weeks ago that I’d be replacing Commissioner Yacovone, so I can’t see the future any better than you can.”