When social workers came forward last week to tell a special legislative committee about staffing shortages and other problems plaguing the Department for Children and Families, Doug Racine cheered them on.
He did so as the recently ousted secretary of human services, who a few days before had been fired by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Earlier in the week, the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee had acted on $31 million in budget cuts proposed by Shumlin to close an unexpected gap in this year’s budget. In doing so, the committee restored money that Shumlin had sought to cut in the human services budget and took a larger chunk than Shumlin had proposed from the special business development fund that the Legislature created this year at Shumlin’s behest.
All of these machinations are taking place in the shadow of the deaths of two small children earlier this year who had been in the custody of DCF. The newly formed Committee on Child Protection has been conducting wide-ranging hearings in response to those deaths, and the state’s social workers and many others have come forward with sobering tales about the shortcomings of the state’s child protection programs.
Racine’s firing was swaddled in cozy rhetoric about the need for “new leadership,” with Racine’s service praised and few clues offered about why he had to go. But with his agency under close scrutiny and the state budget under strain, Racine might well have found himself in a tough position — facing the need to protect his agency’s budget, or even to augment it, while the administration looked for ways to cut it.
Shumlin has responded to the deaths of the two children with promises to add as many as 17 social workers to the DCF staff. Those additions can’t come soon enough, according to social workers who testified to the Child Protection Committee.
Testimony from state employees is often dismissed as self-interested, as if they are seeking merely to defend their budgets and pad their departments with unnecessary personnel. But what legislators heard from social workers last week had the ring of authenticity. The volume and pace of their work “is relentless and unrealistic,” said one DCF supervisor.
“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 the field.”
The department’s widely acknowledged problems, already noted by Shumlin, suggest that these are not self-interested bureaucrats but “humans in the field” who have much to offer. Racine had urged them to speak out, adding to the pressure on Shumlin to do something to fix the problem. Now, Racine is looking for another job.
Racine’s portfolio was broad, including the Department of Vermont Health Access, which has struggled to launch Vermont Health Connect, the state’s health care exchange. There is little reason to believe that Racine’s leadership of the agency was part of the problem faced by the state’s exchange.
It’s more likely that Racine, who has a long history in the Legislature as a champion of children’s welfare, was more interested in solving the problems of the state’s welfare programs than in cheerleading for Shumlin’s budget-cutting efforts. Shumlin, meanwhile, has shown a surprising willingness to pare back human service programs as a means of saving money and holding the line on new taxes.
The problems in DCF made evident in the testimony by social workers, and also by the state’s physicians, suggest carrying out the agency’s mission with renewed vigilance must be given a higher priority than scraping for new budget cuts.
Racine has demonstrated through long years of service in the Legislature, as lieutenant governor and as human services secretary, an unflagging dedication to the interests of vulnerable Vermonters. His shabby treatment by Shumlin, who lacked the grace to inform him of his dismissal in person, suggests a guilty conscience on Shumlin’s part. Legislators who have been hearing from workers in Racine’s former agency should take note.
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