The Department for Children and Families is under new leadership this week after Commissioner Dave Yacovone stepped down from the position to take another job.
Now Ken Schatz has been named to the post. Schatz has previously served as General Counsel for the Agency of Human Services.
These are not easy times for the department. Two young children who were under DCF supervision died this year, one allegedly abused by a stepfather, another allegedly by his mother.
“These are challenging times. I think Commissioner Yacovone has done an excellent job in providing leadership for the department,” Schatz said. “As he has made a decision to move on and the opportunity was presented to me to take on this role, after giving it some thought and recognizing the daunting task ahead, I decided that I was actually enthusiastic about addressing those challenges, and doing what I can to make conditions better for children and families in Vermont.”
“There’s no question those are heartbreaking incidents,” Schatz continued. “What we need to do is to be clear that the department has a role to play and we want to be diligent in doing what we can in the most effective way possible to protect children. And by being open and clear that our staff work incredibly hard and they make challenging decisions every day. We also recognize that we can improve and I think by going through the process of looking at ourselves, and taking advice from experts and others involved, I believe we can enable Vermonters to feel confident in the role that we play.”
“We need to continue to make sure, and we do it day after day, that we take the appropriate steps to investigate allegations and where appropriate, where we do find that there is abuse or neglect going on, take appropriate steps to provide either supportive services or in some circumstances there is authority under the law, utilizing the court system, to have a child removed from their family,” Schatz said. “That’s an extreme step, but sometimes necessary to protect children. Then going forward, the question is, can services provided, can families turn around in terms of how they are parenting their children so that reunification can occur, or is it a circumstance where the child’s safety is at risk, in which case we need to find another alternative, permanent approach to enable the child to grow and thrive.”
Schatz said these are challenging issues that need to be addressed on a case by case basis.
One of the concerns raised has been about staffing. After Doug Racine was fired from his role as the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services, he told VPR’s Vermont Edition that the Department for Children and Families was understaffed, despite a move to bring on more social workers. Schatz said that generally he agrees with that assessment.
“As I enter into this new role, I am looking forward to reviewing and learning and understanding better what the needs are and how we can be more effective. But clearly, having adequate resources is extremely important.”
A special legislative council is looking into making changes at DCF, and Schatz says he appreciates the thoughtful approach that council has taken.
“I think they’ve heard at lot of comments, and suggestions. I have actually participated and been listening through that process so I am well aware of the issues that are being discussed. We very much look forward to an approach where the department can make recommendations and we can ultimately see what the legislature wants to do with respect to legislation and policy direction,” Schatz said. “And my hope is that will have a positive, constructive outcome to improve our services.”