WCAX: Will a new law aimed at protecting Vermont’s vulnerable kids work?

WCAX Posted: Jun 15, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, signed a new state law designed to improve Vermont’s child protection system Monday.

Shumlin called the child protection bill the result of a lot of collective thinking.

“We put more resource into social workers, and training of the other people who are doing the work, second, we have said let’s break down the silos that sometimes precluded the people who knew about the tragedies from communicating with each other about whats going on,” said Shumlin.

Countless community members expressed their concern and outrage over the deaths of Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw at public hearings last summer and a Citizens Advisory Review Board was created to look at the procedures of the Department for Children and Families and a legislative committee compiled hours’ worth of testimony to try and make sense of what went wrong in those two tragic cases and how they can fix it.

The tragic deaths of Dezirae and Peighton promped sweeping changes to the way Vermont protects children.

“The reality is of course is that this started with two tragic deaths,” said Ken Schatz, Department for Children and Families commissioner.

DCF had custody of both Dezirae and Peighton at some point during their short lives. It’s also the agency that played a role in giving the toddlers back to family members who are now accused of murdering them.

Under the new child protection bill that might have never happened.

“There is some clarification about the definitions of abuse and neglect,” said Schatz.

In the case of Dezirae Sheldon, she was returned to her mother who had a history of abuse. Dezirae’s stepdad is charged with murder.

In Peighton Geraw’s case, he was returned to his mom who has a history of opiate abuse. She is charged with his murder.

Lawmakers found in both cases key parts of the children’s histories were not known to social workers or court decision makers in part because of privacy laws.

This new law tries to address those issues.

When substance abuse is occurring in home and is impacting the ability to take care of a child that child is now considered to be at risk of harm. Schatz says this definition helps DCF substantiate claims of abuse and neglect.

The new law also makes changes to the way information is shared between multiple case workers, state agencies and the courts by eliminating many confidentiality clauses.

Schatz says procedures have been streamlined and simplified.

“In circumstances where it’s necessary allows us again to provide information to law enforcement and the courts to step in and ask the court to take custody of the child,” said Schatz.

And when deciding whether to return a child home, the law used to say first consideration went to a custodial parent. Now, courts must consider what is in the best interest of the child rather than abide by a hierarchy. If family reunification does occur, the bill calls for six months of DCF supervision.

Trine Bech is not convinced that’s the solution. She is the executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center which helps parents work to regain custody of their kids. She testified at public hearings last summer and says the child protection bill does not deal with the underlying problems in many abuse cases of poverty and prevention. She worries more low income Vermonters will end up losing their kids.

“How can we elevate and lift up families from poverty because poverty is what creates and contributes to neglect and that is what S.9 doesn’t deal with at all,” said Bech.

Bech worries the bill goes too far in the opposite direction by completely disempowering families.

“For instance, if a family is homeless then it’s going to be very difficult for them to be successful. And so we need to work to help them get housing,” said Bech.

There are already more children, 1,320, in state custody as of last month. That’s up 32 percent since 2013.

And Schatz says while 18 new social workers were hired, caseloads per worker are now at 17.6 which is higher than what it was before they were added.

“Unfortunately what we’ve seen is an increased number of children coming into custody. Again, we think that’s directly related to the substance abuse issue,” said Schatz.

At Monday’s signing, Governor Shumlin touted the hiring of the new social workers despite budget troubles, but with the increasing caseloads those working closely on the law say they hope the results there will help keep things more manageable and streamlined for those working on the front lines of protecting kids.