May 21, 2014 -- In the wake of two tragic homicides involving toddlers with a link to the state's Department for Children and Families (DCF), Gov. Shumlin today called for a number of steps designed to ensure that the Department is better able to protect children and support families.
"While the responsibility to protect children does not rest with government alone, we must make certain our Department for Children and Families is doing everything possible to protect Vermont's children and strengthen our families," the Governor said.
In his request, the Governor tasked Human Services Secretary Doug Racine with developing a reorganization plan of the Department by August 1st for consideration, designed to narrow the Department's focus to its core mission of protecting children and strengthening families and to re-assign some of the responsibilities, such as benefits determinations, that fall outside that core mission.
Gov. Shumlin noted that in 2004 the Department was created out of two former organizations, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) and the Department of Prevention, Assistance, Transition, and Health Services. That move combined case work with a host of benefits programs under the Department's oversight, including eligibility for Medicaid, 3Squares, Reach Up and LIHEAP. The combined Department now serves more than 200,000 Vermonters across a wide spectrum of services.
"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," the Governor said.
The Governor also noted the increased number of cases under DCF review that involve opiate and other drug addiction.
"We know that challenging family circumstances, opiate and other substance abuse, violence, and neglect all present significant risks to children," the Governor said. "The marked increase in opiate addiction also creates new dangers. Opiate addicts work hard to deny and hide their powerful addictions, and some do harmful things to themselves and others while addicted, spreading violence and crime to their families and their communities."
The Governor called for targeted training for DCF and other state workers regarding the challenges presented in such cases, particularly when they involve very young children unable to speak for themselves. DCF will also work with stakeholders to identify or develop further training for those in law enforcement, the legal community, medical providers, the judiciary and all others who play a role in the decisions that affect the safety of children.
In addition, Gov. Shumlin announced that DCF will immediately recruit 18 on the ground social workers, with a staged roll-out starting July 1. Concurrent efforts to secure six substance abuse screeners will also start immediately, with implementation expected over the next three months. DCF will also work to augment the current Central Office staff to support these efforts.
The staffing changes address increased caseload and a shift in the types of problems the Department is facing, specifically a sharp increase in family cases involving drug abuse and addiction.
The staffing plan is budget-neutral as required by the Position Pilot Program approved by the Legislature, and relies on anticipated caseload savings in Reach Up, federal matching funds, and a partial offset by the conversion of temporary employees to full time staff.
Since 2008, the number of child abuse investigations has doubled. While the Shumlin Administration has since 2011 worked hard to decrease case load staffing ratios from more than 20 to 1 down to 17 to 1, these loads still significantly exceed the Legislature's recommendation of 12 to 1, which is based upon national best practices. Increasing turnover among the ranks of highly stressed social workers has resulted in supervisors routinely taking individual case assignments to the detriment of supervision of social workers in their divisions.
In addition, the Governor is requiring the DCF Central Office to review all cases in which a child has experienced serious physical abuse, and reunification with the parent may be contemplated. These cases deserve a greater level of supervisory input and approval than had been routine in the past. DCF will also revise its policy in situations in which a young child in DCF custody is living with a parent in a residential or other supported setting, to ensure that a trial reunification period will not begin until after the parent is discharged.
These changes come on the heels of the homicides of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in February, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw in April. Independent reviews are already underway of each death, as well as an overall review of the Department's systems to determine if additional changes are needed to keep Vermont's children safe. Criminal reviews by the States Attorneys, the Attorney General, and the Vermont State Police are also ongoing. The Governor noted that as of part of its regular process, the Vermont State Police will include state action in its investigation of the Peighton Geraw case.
"Nothing we do will bring back Dezirae and Peighton, and no one can know whether these measures would have protected them from the senseless and cruel violence that caused their deaths. Nor can we expect to stop all such tragedies in the future," Gov. Shumlin said. "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."