Protecting Vermont's Children, Part One: Reports of Abuse

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Protecting Vermont’s Children, Part One: Reports Of Abuse

Vermont’s Department for Children and Families has come under intense scrutiny following the death in February of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon.

The Poultney child’s skull was allegedly fractured by her stepfather Dennis Duby, who’s pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Dezirae had been abused and neglected before, yet the state’s Department for Children and Families chose not to permanently remove the child from the household.

Foster parents on the front lines say that sometimes DCF is too ready to return children to abusive situations. And the number of those situations is on the rise.

Last year, 17,458 calls were made to the state’s child protection hotline. That’s about one call every 30 minutes.

Since 2007, calls about abuse and neglect have gone up 41 percent – a social side effect, many say, of the state’s heroin problem. Trained social workers who answer each of those calls gather as much information as possible.

Karen Shea, child protection and field operations director for DCF, says supervisors review the information collected at the call centers against the department’s policy and statute to determine if DCF can get involved.

“Then the info gets a second supervisory level review at the district level,” Shea says.

Vermont’s DCF is divided into 12 districts. So if a call comes in about a family in Barre, they’ll have the district supervisor there weigh in, “to make sure we are not missing anything,” Shea says.

About one in three calls gets some kind of DCF follow-up or response. That’s a big improvement from seven years ago.

In 2007, a federal review of the state’s child protection services found that Vermont’s response rate to calls about abuse and neglect were far below the national average.

To address that, lawmakers funded an additional 27 social workers and the state overhauled DCF’s intake process.

Today, the most serious allegations are assigned an in-depth investigation, while less severe but still worrisome cases go through either a child abuse and neglect assessment or a family assessment.

Cindy Walcott, DCF’s deputy commissioner, says the changes have allowed the department to double its response rate and connect more families with state and federal services – things like mental health and addiction counseling or child focused programs such as Head Start.

“In child protection, you respond to a very wide range of concerns,” Walcott says. “It can be all the way from the most horrific physical abuse or sexual abuse to situations in which something has actually not even happened to a child, but there are a set of risky circumstances.”

Walcott says that DCF can now help those children and keep families together, thanks to more community support.

While many child protection advocates like the new approach, they point out Vermont’s response rate – meaning the number of cases that are formally opened – is still half the national average, which they say is troubling.

Kate Piper represented children in abuse and neglect cases for 19 years as a public defender in Vermont. She’s now working on her doctorate degree researching how Vermont and other states respond to child abuse and neglect.

She says helping at-risk families tap into social programs is good, but she’s not sure it it’s the best way to keep children safe, because the referrals to services are voluntary.

“I’ve seen cases where families are referred to services over and over again. And as soon as DCF goes away, they don’t follow up on those service referrals,” Piper says. “And so the kids are abused and neglected over and over and over again.”

Sheila Reed, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, was one of the consultants who helped redesign DCF’s response protocol. Things are definitely better than they were five years ago, she says, but are they good enough?

“One of the problems for the outside advocacy community is that we actually don’t actually know what’s going on,” Reed says. “Because there are strict confidentiality requirements.”

Protecting the privacy of minors is obviously important – but so is protecting their safety, Reed says.

“We get reports all the time that too many children now are being placed in the assessment track and not getting the services,” Reed says, “or that too many children are not being even assessed and they’re in limbo. And the problem for us is we really need another way to monitor the system from the outside.”

Patricia Whitney and her husband Neil were Rutland County’s Foster Parents of the year in 2008. They’ve taken in more than 200 teenage girls in the 21 years they’ve worked for DCF.

Patricia says the couple’s relationship with the agency has cooled significantly since they filed a lawsuit against the state over a botched bedbug extermination at their home.

But Patricia says her foremost concern is for the kids in state custody. She and every other foster parent interviewed for this series believe the confidentiality that shrouds DCF makes the agency too insular and powerful.

“I was told for many many years by the resource coordinator in Rutland, who’s no longer there, that foster parents live in a fish bowl,” she says. “And my thought is, if I have to live in a fish bowl then DCF should live in a bigger fish bowl. And they’re not transparent – they’re not even policed.  If they were policed, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Three separate investigations are underway to look at the department’s response to Dezirae Sheldon’s death. Cindy Walcott, the deputy DCF commissioner, says she welcomes the scrutiny and is open to exploring ways to increase public oversight of her department.

This is the first installment in a series examining the strains on Vermont’s child protection system. Our next story will look at the growing problem of child neglect – why it’s difficult to prove, and why child welfare advocates worry that it’s not getting the attention it deserves.