• Protecting children
    May 25,2014

    Gov. Peter Shumlin has taken steps to ensure the Department for Children and Families is up to the job of safeguarding the lives and welfare of Vermont’s children following the deaths of two small children this year.

    A new premise in public policy is struggling to be born. The premise for many years has been that government must find ways to do more with less. There have been reasons for this, including severe economic recession, rising taxes and distrust of government. The assumption was that government offices were stocked with redundant personnel and that new efficiencies would get the job done while saving money at the same time.

    The new premise is that the job must get done even if it means higher costs.

    The deaths of Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney, age 2, and of Peighton Geraw of Winooski, age 15 months, point to the ways that policy might have been giving short shrift to government’s fundamental duty of protecting children.

    In both cases children were returned to families that had been abusive toward them. Sandra Eastman, Dezirae’s mother, had already been convicted of child abuse, and DCF returned Dezirae to her despite the protests of other family members. It was Dezirae’s stepfather who was accused of killing her.

    How DCF made the call to return Dezirae to her mother is the focus of many questions. One of the steps Shumlin has taken would address the question directly. From now on, decisions of that sort would have to be cleared by the central DCF office, which would ensure they get an extra level of scrutiny.

    Inserting that additional bureaucratic step into the process goes to another of the problems identified by Shumlin, and that is the staffing levels at the Agency of Human Services. If personnel at the agency are already stressed to the limit, giving them new work to do — even if it is the work of reviewing crucial decisions about families — could add to the time crunch faced by the agency.

    Child abuse investigations have doubled since 2008, but personnel levels have not kept pace. It is recommended that caseworkers have a load of no more than 12 cases. Lately that number has been reduced from 20 to 17 per caseworker. The heavy load has contributed to high turnover, which has forced supervisors to step in to pick up some cases. Unless things change, giving supervisors added responsibility could worsen the problem.

    To ease the burden, Shumlin plans to shift money within the agency to allow him to hire 18 additional caseworkers, plus six substance abuse screeners and additional personnel in the central office. He says the changes will be budget-neutral, but that is not the great selling point it was in the past when the imperatives of budget-cutting were the dominant consideration.

    The new premise — getting the job done — requires the agency to look at what it will take and then to get the money to do it. It’s not useful to throw money willy-nilly at a problem, and Shumlin’s budget juggling will help. But policymakers must be sure they are not undercutting their mission because of fiscal austerities that put children in danger.

    The nation is confronting a similar question in the current problem involving health care for veterans. The age of austerity left the Department of Veterans Services ill prepared for receiving the wave of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and demanding care for a whole new list of problems, including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether or not certain hospitals are guilty of misconduct in covering up their shortcomings, it is well known that veterans often have to wait too long for the care they need.

    Spending money on veterans or on the protection of children is not something we ought to do with a grudging spirit. We ought to be proud to raise the taxes and spend the money for those purposes. We must be vigilant against wasteful spending, but the new premise means that the first order of business is no longer the saving of money but the fulfillment of our responsibility to care for those in need.

    Public discussion of the cases of Dezirae and Peighton has been hampered because of the confidentiality surrounding children, but legislators and officials looking into the cases need to look behind the veil of secrecy to see what actually happened — who made what decisions and why, as well as how the children’s deaths might have been prevented. These lessons must not go unlearned.

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