Last month, Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine was unceremoniously dismissed from his job overseeing the social safety net in Vermont. The surprise firing came amid several controversies, including the untimely deaths of two toddlers formerly under the watch of the Department for Children and Families.
On Tuesday, the man who runs that department became the latest high-profile departure from the administration. But David Yacovone’s send-off by Gov. Peter Shumlin was decidedly more upbeat.
“Not only has he dealt with tragedy and crisis with a calm and thoughtful approach, but he’s also made real changes since he took over as commissioner,” Shumlin said.
While Yacovone’s departure comes amid controversy at the Agency of Human Services, administration officials say he’s leaving of his own accord. At a hastily arranged press conference attended by DCF staffers, Shumlin praised Yacovone’s hard work on behalf of vulnerable children, and said his steady hand will be missed.
Yacovone says the demands of the job have been intense. He’s leaving to take a job in social services near his home in Lamoille County, a job Yacovone says his wife urged him to apply for.
“She had some other things to say too that I won’t share right here, but I got the message a little bit there,” he said. “You learn after 36 years of marriage to pick up those signals.”
The personnel changes come as lawmakers and the Shumlin administration consider structural changes to a 4,000-person Agency of Human Services.
“When you lose children, our most vulnerable children, you have tragedies like we’ve seen across the state, none of us can say that we’re getting this right,” Shumlin said.
Ken Schatz, who most recently served as general counsel at the Agency of Human Services, will take over immediately for Yacovone. Schatz has a history working with vulnerable populations and formerly served as the city attorney in Burlington.
Former Human Services Secretary Doug Racine said shortly after his firing that child protective services needs more employees. It’s a sentiment that several frontline social workers echoed recently in testimony to lawmakers.
But Yacovone says the department has brought on 50 additional workers in the last three and a half years, including 27 earlier this summer. And he says adding more bodies is not necessarily the answer.
“We’ve put a significant amount of resources into the issue right now and we need to, in my opinion, see how those play out before more are added,” Yacovone said.
Shumlin says top-level officials are examining ways to improve the agency’s operations. Recommendations are due Oct. 1.
“Are there things we could do, either structurally or personnel wise, that would ensure an even better and safer future for our vulnerable kids,” Shumlin said.
Schatz didn’t offer any immediate plans for change at the office, and said he hasn’t been involved in the administration’s conversations about how to restructure the agency.
“We have some significant work to make sure that our children and families are safe, that their basic needs are met, and that we can continue to make our communities a welcome place for all members of our community,” Schatz said.
Schatz is married to Trinka Kerr, the chief of the Office of the Health Care Advocate. Kerr’s office serves Vermonters who need help with health care issues; its advocacy has at times focused on policies that affect residents served by the Department of Children and Families.
Kerr said Tuesday that she and Schatz will be vigilant for conflicts.
"DCF has less and less of a role in health care, so I expect there to be minimal impact on my ability to do my job as Chief Health Care Advocate,” Kerr said. “Vermont is a small state. We hope to navigate through any potential conflicts. We both want to do our jobs."