MONTPELIER -- Doctors around the state say they're not being heard by the Department for Children and Families when they report suspected child abuse, the former president of the Vermont Academy of Pediatrics testified Tuesday before a legislative committee investigating issues of child protection following two infant deaths.
"When we do call we expect that referral to be followed through," said Dr. Louis DiNicola, one of three doctors to testify and make recommendations to the Legislature's Committee on Child Protection.
Among the recommendations, DCF should be required to get back to medical providers if it's not going to investigate to see if there's other information it should know, said DiNicola, who's from Randolph. If a child suffers a life-threatening injury or apparent sexual abuse, he or she should be hospitalized or taken into state custody for a mandatory 72 hours and not go home until the environment is investigated and determined to be safe, he said.
The legislative committee was formed this year to examine the workings of the state's child welfare system after the deaths of two toddlers who had been under state supervision. An investigation found there was a lack of communication among agencies involved with one of the children.
On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced the departure of the Agency of Human Services' secretary, Doug Racine. The agency includes DCF and the Vermont Health Connect insurance exchange website, which continues to be plagued by technical problems 10 months after its launch.
DCF social workers testified later Tuesday that they are woefully understaffed.
Dr. Anne Johnston, a neonatologist at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen and an associate professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, recommended building on the collaboration between DCF and a Fletcher Allen program for pregnant and parenting opiod-dependent women. She said laws concerning confidentiality have impaired this.
Johnston said the program works really well with DCF locally but collaboration is sometimes more difficult in other counties with people who may not be as familiar with the team.
She said she's also heard people from DCF say long ago and recently, "You do your job doctor, and I'll do mine."
"And to me that just screams a lack of cooperation," she said. "Yes, you are better qualified to do your job, and I'm better qualified to do my job, but let's do our jobs together to keep these children safe."
But she cautioned legislators that if women think Fletcher Allen will involve DCF in every case or may remove babies from families, this may drive the women to hide their addictions and not get treatment.