State News
December 3, 2014

Outside report criticizes DCF handling of child deaths

By Laura Krantz, VTDigger.org

The Department for Children and Families failed to follow its own policies and moved too quickly to reunify two children with their families when it was not safe, an outside report released Friday, Nov. 21, found. That push to reunify, along with other system failures, contributed to those children’s deaths this year, the report concluded.

Gov. Peter Shumlin commissioned the report following the deaths of two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon and 14-month-old Peighton Geraw.

The panel of Vermont medical, education, law enforcement and child development professionals reviewed case records from both incidents and produced a 27-page report that details many areas in which systems failed and communication broke down. The strongly worded report outlines areas in which DCF and other sectors of the child protection system, including courts and police, can improve policies and make sure workers follow those policies in the field.

Many breakdowns in the two cases hinge on the fact that social workers and the courts pushed to reunify the children with a parent without ensuring the homes were safe. There is an incorrect perception among social workers and family courts that “reunification at all costs” is the formal policy of DCF, the report says. That misperception causes officials to incorrectly assume that reunification is more important than a child’s safety, the report says.

Part of the pressure to reunify comes from the federal government, which oversees state child welfare programs, according to Dr. Joe Hagan, a co-chairman of the Vermont Citizens Advisory Board, which created the report. “There has been a tremendous push federally for reunification,” Hagan said at a Friday news conference about the report.

DCF officials in the past and at Friday’s news conference said that reunification when it is safe for the child will continue to be the state’s policy. Officials at the news conference downplayed the report’s findings but said it is clear the department has room to improve.

“We found no wrongdoing, what we found was opportunities to do things more efficiently, more effectively,” Hagan said.

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