Three separate investigations are looking into how Vermont’s Department for Children and Families protect children at risk for abuse and neglect.
The inquiries follow the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney. The toddler’s skull was allegedly crushed by her step-father. Moving forward, many say they’re hopeful that Dezirae’s tragic death may help galvanize needed reform for Vermont's strained child protection services.
Vermont’s Department for Children and Families has a current operating budget of just over $400 million dollars. While child protection advocates say services that help at-risk children can always use more funding, Rutland Senator Peg Flory says she doesn’t think money is DCF’s problem.
“I think it’s a systemic problem. Is there proper training?” she asks. “What are the job descriptions? Is there appropriate follow through? If there isn’t,” she continues, “is it a manpower problem? A protocol problem? What is the problem?”
Flory serves on a senate committee that’s trying to determine if policy changes are needed to prevent other children from dying. She says what she’s hearing from those on the front lines has confirmed many of her concerns about DCF. But she says trying to tease out why certain problems exist has been difficult because of state and federal confidentiality laws.
The secrecy around DCF is pushing lawmakers to rethink those laws, Flory says — something other states are grappling with as well.
“It’s a balancing test, and that’s what we’re trying to look at," Flory says. "How the other states have done it. What problems have happened? How do they balance the wrongly accused? That’s one of the things our committee is going to look at."
Sheila Reed, head of Voices for Vermont’s Children, also sees the lack of transparency as a huge issue. But she thinks the best approach would be to create an independent watchdog position to oversee child protection, similar to the state’s long-term care ombudsman.
“They would have the authority to intervene on behalf of children and families,” says Reed. “They would be responsible for setting up a uniform reporting system for analyzing and collecting complaints and they would analyze and monitor child welfare policy.”
All while maintaining the confidentiality of the kids involved. A bill to create such a position was introduced last year, but Reed says it didn’t get much traction because of its estimated $200,000 annual price tag.
“We are actually the only state in New England right now that does not have such an office,” says Reed, adding that her organization will try to remedy that by lobbying hard to win support for the bill next year.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacavone supports that kind of oversight and says government transparency is vital. But the central question of how to protect kids from abuse and neglect? Yacavone says that needs a bigger answer.
“We have to be a department that helps to strengthen families,” Yacavone says. “And we’re moving in that direction, and I want to go in that direction because to me, that’s where the answer lies going forward.”
Yacavone says you can’t keep children safe when families are crumbling all around them. You have to tackle the underlying causes: “The problem of abuse and neglect, of substance abuse, of seemingly intractable poverty that consumes families — it’s bigger than DCF.”
These are issues the entire state is struggling to come to grips with, Yacavone says.
Nevertheless, he and DCF Deputy Commissioner Cindy Walcott say they’ll continue to strive for better outcomes. And Walcott says she welcomes the increased scrutiny.
“You can imagine how upsetting an event like this is to us internally as well as externally,” Walcott says. “We are a system of people who are dedicated to child protection who want to do the best job possible for children and families.”
Besides the three investigations now underway, Walcott says the federal government will weigh in next spring with its own comprehensive review of Vermont’s child and family services.
It’s been seven years since the last one, which the deputy commissioner says helped DCF to make a number of important reforms.
But Walcott says some changes have already begun. “In the aftermath of Dezirae’s death, one of the things that I did was look back at the last five years to try and get a sense of see how often we had a case with severe physical injuries. And in the last five years there have only been 44 cases substantiated,” she said.
That indicated to Walcott that most DCF staff are not experienced enough in dealing with severe abuse. So she says now any time such allegations are made, caseworkers are required to consult with more experienced coworkers.
Attorney Linda Aylesworth Reis represents children and parents in Addison and Rutland County's juvenile court. She says Dezirae Sheldon’s death has brought about changes there too.
For instance, when custody issues come up now, she says they’re getting a lot more scrutiny.
“I recently had a case where my client answered many, many questions directly put to him by the judge about his background, his relationships, his intentions, all kinds of things that were so out of the ordinary really," said Aylesworth Reis. "I recognized that to be, I think, what’s going to happen from here on out and it’s not a bad thing at all. It’s probably the best thing we can say that’s come out of this tragic event with little Dezirae.”
She and others believe more communication between child welfare advocates is needed, as are more services for kids and families and better training and funding both for DCF and Vermont’s juvenile courts. We haven’t seen those changes yet, she says, but she’s hopeful.
This is the final installment in a special series examining the strains on Vermont's child protection system. Find the rest of the series here: