Gov. Peter Shumlin announced some major changes at the top of the troubled Agency of Human Services Tuesday.
Doug Racine, who has served as Secretary of Human Services since Shumlin took over the governor’s office in 2011, is stepping down. Health Commissioner Harry Chen is replacing Racine and will serve as interim secretary through 2014. During that time, Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan will serve as the head of the department.
Shumlin acknowledged that the agency, which is responsible for a large portion of the state’s social services, is not easy to run.
"He did some extraordinary work," Shumlin said. "He had to take over a mental health system that saw the state hospital get flooded out in the middle of the night. We totally rebuilt that. He's done some great work on accountability in the programs - measuring the outcomes of the work we're actually doing. I felt that it was time for new leadership, and I'm grateful to Secretary Chen for his willingness to come over and provide that new direction."
Racine said he first heard of the change at 4 p.m. Monday, when Gov. Peter Shumlin and his chief of staff, Liz Miller, held a meeting with him asking him to leave. Administration officials confirmed the change to media Tuesday morning.
"This came as a surprise to me," Racine said. "I was hoping to continue in this job. I feel really good about the work we have done at the agency in the past three and a half years. I was looking forward to continuing that work, but the governor decided he wanted a different style of leadership moving forward and it's certainly the governor's prerogative to have the person he wants in these sorts of jobs."
In February, 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon was killed when her stepfather allegedly crushed her skull. In April, 15-month-old Peighton Geraw died hours after a visit from a case worker with the Department for Children and Families. Geraw's mother, Nytosha Laforce, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Last month, police arrested 26-year-old Joshua Blow for the alleged murder of 2-year-old Aiden Haskins in Shelburne.
The deaths have prompted calls for reform within the Department for Children and Families, which is overseen by the Agency of Human Services. DCF Commissioner Dave Yacavone announced some changes to improve the department in June. Racine said Shumlin didn't provide any insight on other changes that might be made within the agency.
But Rep. Ann Pugh, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, said Racine's departure isn't just about the problems at DCF.
"The Agency of Human Services is a huge agency," she said "It's the largest agency in the state, and there are multiple departments that have had challenges over the past several years."
Those problems include miscalculations by the agency in the way it paid out federal money for SNAP benefits, or food stamps. The errors led to overpayments, and left many low-income families on the hook to repay the federal money.
Marissa Parisi, the executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, brought attention to the miscalculations last year. She said the problems were likely attributable to staffing cuts made during the economic recession, but the state made the necessary changes when the problem came up.
"I really have applauded the work that the Department for Children and Families has done in the last, I would say, six to eight months to solve the problem," she said, noting that the error rate dropped from about 10 percent down to around 3 percent during that period.
Parisi said she hopes the proactive approach the agency took under Racine's leadership will continue.
Peter Hirschfeld and Nina Keck contributed reporting.
Updated August 12 at 4:15 p.m. to reflect comments from Shumlin, Racine, Pugh, Chen and Parisi.