Fixing the DCF

The recent and well-publicized woes of the state's Department for Children and Families have attracted much scrutiny in recent weeks, culminating with investigations by the state's Attorney General's office and the State Police. The deaths of two children earlier this year - 2 year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney and 15 month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski - triggered a good deal of attention on how well the department was monitoring children who come under its supervision. Understandably, many, if not all, Vermonters were outraged that two young and vulnerable children were placed in situations where they met with their tragic, and we have to assume, avoidable, fates.

In the wake of those tragedies, it is proper that the DCF should be closely scrutinized and their personnel - whether in supervisory roles or their frontline social workers - be held accountable. We'll start from the premise that most if not all of the people who work at DCF and organizations like it are motivated by a sincere interest in trying to help people, both adults and children, to overcome the often challenging issues they face. Some may be more motivated than others, but even allowing for the fact that social work salaries are hardly a get-rich-quick scheme, most of the people who go to work there want to do the right thing.

But when there are not one but two breakdowns of this magnitude virtually back-to-back, searching examinations are called for and heads may indeed need to roll. We aren't in a position to say whether or not one of them should be that of David Yacavone, the DCF's commissioner. Ultimately he is responsible, but simply cashiering someone who is several steps removed from the day-by-day handling of individual cases isn't by itself the answer. It may serve a political necessity to make it seem like politicians are "doing something," but if all that happens is that one commissioner leaves and another arrives without any other action taking place, nothing really changes, and the same tragedy could happen again.

The person in charge of the Rutland district office which oversaw the Sheldon case was transferred to the DCF's central office in Essex Junction and replaced by another person formerly with the field services division of the Agency for Human Services. It's not clear if this is a demotion or a lateral transfer. If it's fair to pin the blame, or some of it, on the former district manager, a move to the central office hardly seems like punishment. That individual's pain and sense of guilt over what could have or should have been done that might have prevented both tragedies from occurring is probably worse punishment that losing a job or being disciplined for performance failure. Nevertheless, this action doesn't seem like much of a message sender.

Drill down further and we read about overworked and understaffed social workers and offices with high turnover rates. The recommended caseload for social workers is supposed to be about 12:1, but the reality is often closer to 16:1, and in some instances much higher. That's a problem. Hiring more social workers to lower those ratios would seem like a priority, although by itself, that won't accomplish much if they up and leave after a year or so for whatever reason. Whether the state has the funds to boost pay scales, if that is part of the problem, or throw more "human resources" at it, is another issue.

We'll look forward to hearing more about whether the department's technology is as outdated as it has been made out to be. Running 30 year-old computer systems and cobbled together networks is profoundly inefficient and if they truly are in such a sorry state, replacing that obsolete equipment would seem like a good place to start the overhaul and review which must occur department-wide. It's hard to believe though, that the mainline day-to-day computers and mobile phones could really be that long in the tooth. Most state agencies we've had experience dealing with have much better technology equipment than we enjoy here at The Journal, and even our oldest kit isn't 30 years old. On some days, it seems like it, but most of it is at least post Y2K.

Rather than creating a few sacrificial lambs, we'd offer the thought that maybe the DCF should focus more on employee training to reduce turnover and encourage their social workers - no, demand - that they make sure that they are monitoring their caseload thoroughly and working with partner organizations effectively. Again, it's a conjecture, but maybe some district offices and their personnel need to broaden their willingness to work with other agencies and private sector charitable organizations rather than staying inside their respective silos. We'll be careful to note that some district offices may operate more effectively than others and are already incorporating a philosophy of accepting help from outside organizations whose missions overlap with their own. Just as the FBI and the CIA learned the hard way after 9/11 that it made good sense to share information with each other, there's no excuse for the DCF, the courts, law enforcement and other stakeholders not sharing information, particularly where there's reason to think some of their "clients" fall into the "high risk" category.

In this age of straitened economics, that not only makes good sense on a policy level, but spends the taxpayer's dollar wisely. Social workers should, as a matter of doing their job correctly, be required to make monthly visits to each one of their cases in their homes. It would be interesting to know if this is currently a requirement or not, and if it is, are they documented? Are the social workers being encouraged or pushed to learn all they truly need to know about the people they are working with?

How Dezirae Sheldon, for instance, could have been returned to a situation where her legs were broken several months before her death - allegedly, by the same stepfather who later was charged with and who has pled innocent to the second-degree murder charge - is inexcusable. But the state police report indicates that the social workers who gathered the information about the broken legs didn't pass it on to the states attorney for possible prosecution.

Lastly, at some point the question needs to be asked about the personal responsibility parents who are receiving help from organizations like DCF.

What are doing to help themselves and protect their children? It's easy to point the finger of blame at state workers - but where does the burden of responsibility fall on other family members, who are in the best position to know the real truth?


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