State officials have learned valuable lessons from the tragic loss of two young lives this year. A hearing on Wednesday by a special legislative committee shone a light on some of those lessons.
It was the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney that first revealed problems with the state’s child protection services. The death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski in April underscored those concerns.
Tom L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, told the committee in written testimony that state officials had failed to identify the offender who was responsible for breaking Dezirae’s legs in an incident last year. Dezirae’s mother, Sandra Eastman, lost custody of her daughter because of negligence in seeking treatment for her broken legs, but last fall, the Department for Children and Families returned the girl to her mother, despite opposition from other family members.
An investigation of the case revealed that DCF had learned that Dezirae’s stepfather, Dennis Duby, had been responsible for the girl’s broken legs, but that information was not communicated to the family’s social worker or Dezirae’s court-appointed lawyer. If they had known about the allegations against Duby, red flags presumably would have arisen as they decided whether to return the girl to her family.
Instead, Duby now stands charged with murdering the little girl.
At the hearing on Wednesday, David Yacovone, commissioner of DCF, addressed the question of his department’s priorities in child welfare cases. One of its aims is reuniting families that have been separated because of abuse, neglect or other problems. But that is not the primary goal, Yacovone insisted. “Our goal is the safety of children,” Yacovone said.
Social workers dealing with troubled families are often called upon to make Solomonic decisions about what is best for children and families. When children are removed from families, they face the prospect of years in foster care. There are foster care success stories and foster care failures, and state officials understand a family that can heal itself from whatever had divided it may ultimately be a better answer for a child than a substitute family.
But these are hard calls to make. It is important that Yacovone has emphasized the importance of child safety. His social workers need the backing of their department in standing by tough decisions to keep endangered children away from parents who may have good intentions but who may be unable to raise children in safety.
Yacovone stressed the importance of adequate staffing. “If you’re always rushing, if you’re always behind, you cannot do the job that’s needed to protect children and strengthen families,” he said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has recognized the department has suffered because of short staffing, and he has decided to add 17 social workers in places where the demand is the highest. There will also be two new supervisors and a domestic violence specialist. The state has taken action specifically addressing the situation in the Rutland office of DCF, transferring the director of the office away from Rutland and bringing in a new interim director to help guide the office through the latest crisis.
These are all necessary and welcome actions. It is important to recognize how state officials have not reacted. They have not adopted a defensive posture, trying to make excuses or cover up problems. They have not tried to minimize problems. They have not focused on a scapegoat. Rather, they have pursued organizational reforms that will address the conditions that might have led to mistakes. They have also sought to clarify priorities so social workers on the firing line know that children’s safety trumps family reunification. These are important steps.
Bureaucracies have their own sorts of momentum, and it could happen that at some future time, DCF may become too heavy-handed in dealing with families and too lacking in flexibility in working to reunite families. In the meantime, it is becoming more acutely attuned to the imperatives of children’s safety.
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