Citizens of Morristown are still reeling from allegations that a local schoolteacher sexually abused two of his male students over a period of five years. The charges against Shaun Bryer have also focused a spotlight on the state agency charged with investigating such matters. School officials brought their concerns about Bryer to the attention of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, but their concerns didn’t trigger a formal investigation.
Some child-welfare advocates are suggesting the Bryer case is symptomatic of a larger problem at DCF — namely, that it lacks the resources to investigate all the reports of abuse and neglect it receives. In fact, according to a national report, Vermont has the lowest rate of child-abuse-and-neglect investigations of any state in the country.
In a federal report published by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Vermont’s rate of investigating child maltreatment was 21 percent in 2007, compared to the national average of 62 percent. More recent statistics show that Vermont’s rate of investigations has improved to 32 percent but is still roughly half the national average.
One staffer in a central Vermont youth advocacy organization said that such figures are consistent with what she’s heard locally from her staff for years. This worker, who asked not to be identified because her agency receives DCF funding, referred to “one hair-raising tale after another” of kids reporting abuse or neglect but those reports not getting investigated because they “didn’t meet DCF criteria.”
DCF Commissioner Steve Dale cautioned against reading too much into the numbers at a Justice for Children conference held last week in Montpelier. He explained that Vermont reports its incoming abuse calls differently than other states, noting that DCF acknowledges the total number of calls it receives, regardless of whether they’re duplicates, hypothetical inquiries or allegations completely unworthy of further investigation. “It’s not until after you get into a phone call that you know whether someone’s calling you with an actual report” of abuse or neglect, he said.
Dale talked up other areas in which DCF has made impressive strides in the last few years. Those include a 30 percent reduction in the number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care — from 1300 four years ago to 950 today — and more foster kids being supported beyond the age of 18 in order to give them a better chance of success.
That said, Dale made no attempt to deny that the economic downturn is taking a huge toll on Vermont’s most vulnerable population. With more families struggling with unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness, child welfare advocates are reporting a rise in requests for services and calls to emergency hotlines.
Overall reports of child abuse and neglect are up statewide, from 2938 in 2007 to 3526 in 2008. That trend reflects the latest national figures, which show an estimated 1760 American children died of abuse or neglect in 2007 — an astounding 35 percent increase over the numbers from 2001.
In the last year, Montpelier-based Prevent Child Abuse Vermont has seen nearly double the demand for its family support services and nurturing-parent classes, with requests outstripping the organization’s available resources.
How is DCF responding to the growing problem? Dale pointed out that his agency has investigated 40 percent more abuse and neglect cases this year than last. One reason for the uptick, according to the commissioner, is that in September 2008 DCF switched to a centralized intake system. Instead of 12 different district offices fielding abuse and neglect calls and providing different answers depending upon who answered the phone, a single, statewide call center now does the job, providing more consistent and standardized responses.
Secondly, as of July 1, DCF changed to a “differential response” system for handling abuse calls. Basically, in cases of alleged abusive parenting, the department has shifted its focus from trying to prove blame in a court of law to figuring out what actions are best suited for protecting the child.
“That’s been a huge change,” said Sally Borden, executive director of the nonprofit KidSafe Collaborative of Chittenden County. In the past, she said, if DCF investigators couldn’t substantiate a charge of abuse or neglect, the case was often closed, which Borden found “very frustrating.”
Today, Borden said, the state can conduct a family assessment to determine the level of risk facing the child. Obviously, if there are allegations of sexual abuse, the case is automatically investigated for possible criminal prosecution. But in other cases where the offense isn’t egregious and/or the child isn’t at high risk for further harm, the department has greater latitude for dealing with the complaint. Borden suggests that this approach is far less costly and time consuming and better serves the interest of both the parent and the child.
Linda Johnson of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont agrees. She sees DCF’s move away from an adversarial approach as a huge improvement — whether it means giving families parenting classes, childcare support, mental health counseling or substance abuse referrals.
“If you have a family that’s under so much stress that people are worried about their children, then let’s just help that family,” Johnson said, “instead of playing cops and robbers with them and only staying involved if we can prove something against them in court.”
But Vermont families aren’t the only ones feeling more stressed out lately. State employees working at DCF are themselves struggling to do their jobs with fewer people and resources — a situation that, Dale admitted last week, has resulted in “more wear and tear” on his staff.
Ironically, Dale told the Stowe Reporter last month that recent budget cuts to his department “had nothing to do with” his department’s handling of the Bryer case, and that DCF “has not been compromised” by budget reductions.
But in an October 2 memo to all DCF employees, Dale sounded a very different note. In it, he outlined how the efforts to reduce personnel expenses in order to achieve the Douglas administration’s goal of $7 million in personnel savings have been taking a toll on his department.
“In making this plan, we have continued our goal of minimizing the impact on direct services to vulnerable Vermonters,” Dale wrote. “Even with this goal in mind, we are now at a point where any reductions — even outside of the direct service arena — impact the ability of the department to function smoothly. We will see compromises in responsiveness and performance in many areas.”
Those staff reductions, Dale added, will “affect our ability to deliver timely, high-quality service to Vermonters.”