Updated at 5:07 p.m. with information from DCF press conference.
Vermont Department for Children and Families workers failed to protect two abused children who were later killed because they were bent on reunifying them with their families — despite the obvious dangers lurking in their homes, a review panel concluded in a scathing report issued today.
But most of their criticism was directed at DCF, which allowed 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Rutland and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski to remain at home despite reports of abuse. Both were allegedly killed by loved ones shortly after having contact with DCF.
The panel's report describes an agency in which caseworkers were poorly trained, misunderstood their basic responsibilities, failed to communicate with others involved with the case, and ignored parents' drug abuse and other signs that children shouldn't be left at home.
Most alarming, the report found that caseworkers and others involved with protecting children don't even understand their basic responsibilities.
"An incorrect perception appears to exist among casework staff, the family courts and others in the system that 'reunification at all costs' is the formal policy of the department, and indeed of the entire child protection system," the report says. "This misinterpretation of the Juvenile Proceedings Act appears to result in incorrect assumption that reunification takes priority over the best interests of the child."
DCF workers lacked training and experience working with drug abusers, and "may not have recognized many of the manipulative behaviors common to many drug abusers," the report said.
During an afternoon press conference, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz and Harry Chen, the interim secretary of human services, said DCF has already changed practices to emphasize that reunification is not social workers’ primary goal.
"We're being more cautious and protective in terms of our practice with respect to substance abuse and young children, in terms of making sure that we look very carefully from the beginning right through case closure," Schatz said.
Schatz initially refused to discuss whether any DCF employees had been disciplined as a result of the failures described in the report, saying the information was confidential. "We have not looked at these matters as somebody did something wrong. What we look at it is that we need to make some changes to our policies and practices," Schatz said. After repeated questioning, he finally acknowledged that no employees have been sanctioned.
“We have not taken any individual action against employees as a result of this matter,” Schatz said.
The panel that wrote the report, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, is run by Burlington pediatrician Joe Hagan and KidSafe Collaborative executive director Sally Borden, and is made up of law enforcement professionals, domestic violence experts, investigators and lawmakers, including Senate President John Campbell.
They were given access to case files from both DCF and law enforcement, and interviewed DCF staff in person.
To address the problems identified in the report, the panel made 42 recommendations, including increasing DCF staff training to "address the misperception that reunification should always be pursued first and foremost," annual central office reviews of DCF caseworkers and requirements for better record keeping.
The panel said that one of Shumlin's key reforms — hiring 18 additional DCF caseworkers to allow the agency more time to focus on individual cases — "will not fully address the issue. It is clear that all agencies within the child protection system are carrying caseloads that are too high, which causes workers to triage, to burn out and leave, and to cut corners in an effort to do the best they can."
The report found "relatively few," substantiated cases of abuse in Vermont, and suggested that staff may not have enough training or experience to deal with those reports. The panel also noted that concerns voiced by "mandatory reporters," to DCF often do not result in an investigation "even when the information provided seems credible and appears to meet the statutory definitions."
During the press conference, Chen defended DCF social workers, saying they were tasked with making difficult judgment calls while dealing with strained families.
“This is not a black-and-white, formulaic decision,” Chen said.
Officials made clear they will ask the legislature for more money to hire additional caseworkers. While the 18 new staffers were hired by DCF last summer in an effort to reduce social workers' caseloads from 20 cases per worker to around 12, the new hires haven’t made a dent in the workload, officials said. Because DCF is making more of an effort to investigate cases in which substance abuse is a factor, the agency has seen a spike in the caseload that has effectively consumed the new staffers, officials said.
With the state facing a $100 million budget shortfall next year, Chen acknowledged it will be difficult to find more money for DCF.
“You have a challenging legislative session,” Chen said.
The panel also found fault with people outside DCF.
"There was little indication in the court record or the case files of sufficient attention to this case by the guardian ad litem, the attorneys and the various judges involved," the report said of the Sheldon case.
Additionally, medical personnel who examined Geraw shortly before his death "did not have expertise in pediatric child abuse," and thus missed a head injury, it said. It also said police did not interview key witnesses in their criminal probes.
Last year, DCF received 17,000 complaints of potential child abuse or neglect. Of those, roughly 5,000 prompted further investigation and about 2,200 resulted in action to protect a child.
DCF investigators can't simply remove a child on their own. They need a judge's order, or in emergencies can summon police officers, who have the ability to remove children they deem to be in "imminent danger."