A serious crisis of confidence in the Department for Children and Families has become evident following the recent deaths of two children. That was clear from the many tales of abuse a special legislative committee heard from the public at hearings in Chester, Manchester and Rutland on Tuesday.
The common lament was that DCF had not done enough to protect children — that it gave too much deference to abusive parents, that it too quickly returned children to abusive parents, that it ignored warnings of abuse, that it was slow to act.
The awful stories heard about abused children and abusive parents shine a light on one of the most difficult roles that government plays in safeguarding its citizens. Any given report of child abuse comes with pitfalls that must be negotiated by social workers trying to learn the truth. What is the dynamic of the family into which the social worker is inserting himself or herself? Are the witnesses reliable, and are their stories true? Are there signs of abuse? How dangerous are conditions for vulnerable children?
It is not always easy to discern the reality about allegations of abuse and neglect, but it is easy to see that social workers are pulled by contradictory forces. The state has mandated that abuse of children be reported by people in a position to learn about it — doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers. Thus, there is a priority on becoming aware of abuse and taking action to protect children.
At the same time, there is a bias within DCF toward keeping families together when possible. This is a legitimate preference. Children do best when raised by loving parents, and taking children away from families is a drastic step. Stories about the difficulty of foster care are legion; even a well-functioning foster care system encounters inevitable hardship and conflict. Being foster parents is hard, and being a foster child is harder.
Given these two competing aims, social workers are forced to make devilishly difficult judgments. Has the parent truly stopped taking drugs? Has the parent come to terms with a past history of violence? What does violence against older children portend for a younger one?
The crisis of confidence evident in the stories told Tuesday arises from the belief that DCF too often gives abusive parents the benefit of the doubt. It is good to try to keep families together, but if a family is a nexus of violence and drug abuse, it is not much of a family, especially with regard to young children.
As Human Services Secretary Douglas Racine and Gov. Peter Shumlin carry out their examination of DCF policy, it will be important to examine all the protocols and assumptions guiding department actions. It would be useful to spell out to the public the way decisions are made and their basis. Rules of confidentiality prevent the public discussion of individual cases, but the criminal cases involving the recent deaths are going to bring department protocols out into the open, and open discussion and accountability for the department ought to be the result.
The flip side of a slow-acting bureaucracy is an interfering bureaucracy, using a heavy hand in response to unreliable allegations to break up families. That doesn’t seem to be the problem these days. Rather, the special legislative committee and the executive branch need to reassure the public that the state’s procedures and personnel are up to the task of protecting Vermont’s children. If they are not up to the task at present, we need to know it and something needs to happen to remedy the problem.
Action in response to the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw has been swift. It will be important that Racine and Shumlin bring clarity to a problem ordinarily clouded in the murky atmosphere of family dysfunction and bureaucratic obscurity. This problem is not going away soon.
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