Working Together for a Stronger Child Protection System

22 June 2015

Last year, we mourned the loss of Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw. These children died, allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, after time spent in the custody of the Department for Children and Families. These losses shook our communities and those of us charged with protecting Vermont's children.

Over the past several months, our elected leaders, community partners, and concerned citizens came together to examine ways to strengthen and improve the systems we use to keep children safe. On June 15, 2015, Governor Shumlin signed Act 60 (S.9) — an act relating to improving Vermont’s system for protecting children from abuse and neglect — into law. In signing this bill, he endorsed the tireless work of the legislature, community partners, and DCF staff in reviewing Vermont’s Child Protection System. The level of public interest and discourse in crafting, modifying and ultimately supporting this legislation demonstrates that child protection truly is a community concern in Vermont.

I would like to highlight several key changes that Act 60 makes possible:

  • Information sharing: New provisions protect the privacy of vulnerable children while providing a framework for true collaboration focused on protecting children.
  • Closer collaboration between DCF and Vermont’s Special Investigation Units in cases of serious physical and sexual abuse. High quality, joint investigations will help us keep children safe while holding offenders accountable.
  •  The adoption of a mandatory six-month supervisory period for children reunified to a home in which they were abused or neglected. This six-month period will provide additional oversight during a critical period of transition.
  • The creation of a Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee to support ongoing review and discussion of the strengths and challenges of Vermont’s Child Protection System.

Prior to the passage of Act 60, DCF had already implemented significant improvements based on reviews conducted by Casey Family Programs and the Vermont Citizen’s Advisory Board. DCF also sought feedback from its staff, community partners, and the public to develop a plan to improve our policies and support our workforce.

These changes included:

  •  An emphasis on child safety in the Family Services Division mission;
  • Implementation of new policies requiring management consultation in cases of serious physical abuse;
  • Updated training on child safety and risk assessment in partnership with Casey Family Programs and the Children’s Research Center. In addition, DCF is implementing a comprehensive coaching program to support continual skill development; and
  • An improved DCF website providing better information to the public about its policies and practices. We will continue our efforts to share information about the safety and well-being of Vermont’s children.

It is important to remember that by the time a family comes to the attention of the child protection system, they are already in serious distress. As a community, we must continue prevention efforts to address opiate abuse and provide a comprehensive system of economic and social supports to families with young children.

The reality is that recent trends show us many families are in trouble. Between 2013 and 2014:

  • Calls to DCF’s Child Protection Hotline increased by 10.5%; over 19,000 calls were received. Substance abuse was identified as a contributing factor in 35% of those calls.
  • The number of children who were substantiated victims of child abuse increased from 868 to 992.
  • There was a 33% increase in the number of children in DCF custody, bringing the total to over 1,300 children. This is the highest number of children in custody in over a decade. Most startling, however, is the 79% increase in the number of children under the age of six entering state custody.
  • In spite of adding 18 social workers in the fall of 2014, caseloads are higher than they were a year ago. The stress of the work has contributed to a 22% turnover rate in social work staff for 2014.

We cannot, and do not, act alone in addressing child protection. It is my hope that the legacy of Dezirae and Peighton’s lives will be a stronger child protection system and communities united in caring for our most vulnerable children and families.

Ken Schatz, DCF Commissioner