It isn’t often that Shannon Morton talks shop outside the confines of her state offices in Burlington. But as a 10-year social worker at the Department for Children and Families, Morton offers precisely the perspective lawmakers are suddenly looking for.
"As you can imagine not many folks want or should have to hear about my work days, so I thank you for the opportunity to share,” Morton told legislators this week.
The deaths of two Vermont infants this year prompted a legislative probe into the Department for Children and Families. And frontline social workers are now coming forward to help lawmakers improve child protection services.
“We have been struggling behind closed doors for a long time about the challenges that we face as social workers, as an agency and as humans in this field,” Morton said.
Morton and other social workers told legislators that staffing shortages, lack of communication between state agencies, and what they said are sometimes unrealistic evidentiary thresholds needed to remove kids from dangerous homes. They said these problems, and others, are leading to the types of situations that might have led to the deaths of infants in Winooski and Poultney.
“The volume and pace currently we are doing is relentless and unrealistic,” said Neysha Stuart, a social services supervisor who works out the DCF office in Barre.
Stuart said average caseload numbers supplied by the department don’t accurately reflect the strain on most workers. She said constant turnover means an abundance of fresh faces. And since the new employees can’t safely take on a full caseload, veterans are forced to pick up the slack.
Understaffing was among the more common critiques from social workers. And former Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine this week corroborated their assessment.
Racine, who was fired by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this week, said he urged these social workers to tell their story. In an interview after his dismissal, Racine said “they need more people.”
“There is no question about it,” he said.
The social workers said lack of communication between DCF and other state departments – like the Department of Corrections or Division of Economic Services – has prevented them from gaining key information about the safety of their clients’ home environment.
“The number of days I am baffled by what I do not know about the families that I am working with are innumerable,” Morton said.
Workers say evidentiary hurdles also result in children being sent back to abusive caregivers.
Kerrie Johnson, a former social worker in Morrisville who left the department recently to go to law school, said she’s been frustrated by the inability to admit hearsay into family court hearings. When children tell doctors, for instance, that their injuries were inflicted by a care giver, that information can’t be admitted in court. And she said abusive parents can easily convince children to change their testimony before a judge.
“And I just very recently was called to testify at a hearing in which we lost, and the child went home in a very serious physical abuse case, because we could not introduce this child’s statements,” Johnson said.
South Burlington Rep. Ann Pugh, a member of the newly formed Committee on Child Protection, said it’s become clear to lawmakers that some kind of legislative action is in order.
“I think there are some things that we can do – what it looks like I think is still up in the air, and will in fact be up in the air until the requisite committees begin to look at it,” Pugh said.
When it does come time to develop a proposal, Racine said he hopes the package will reflect the concerns of the social workers.
“I’m glad they testified,” Racine said. “And I hope the Legislature is listening.”
The Child Protection Committee meets again early next month.