MONTPELIER -- State officials and police Wednesday gave conflicting accounts about whether reunification of families in cases of abuse or neglect is the state's primary goal. Lawmakers say they want to revisit the matter at future hearings and get a straight story from the Vermont Department for Families and Children.
The comments came during a daylong hearing at the Statehouse that was held by a joint committee investigating child protection in Vermont. Lawmakers heard from states attorneys, police chiefs and several DCF officials.
Topics ranged from overworked social workers to communication shortcomings. Police chiefs from Burlington, Rutland and Winooski criticized DCF for a "cone of silence" and secrecy that prevents them from doing their job well.
Dave Yacovone, the commissioner of the DCF, said child safety and finding permanent homes for children are the department's top goals. Lt. Detective James Cruise, who investigated DCF, said exactly the opposite is true. DCF pushes children back into unsafe homes far too often, he said.
The policy of reunification - returning a child to his home after the state has removed him - is the center of a controversy that centers on two children who were killed within months after DCF allowed parents to regain custody.
A State Police report into the Poultney case of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon identified significant errors on the part of DCF staff in the Rutland office, as well as on the part of police, attorneys and others involved in the case.
Cruise, the state police investigator who wrote the report, testified that no matter what policy DCF has on paper, the cultural norm among workers is to reunify children even when that might not be best for the child.
"That often leads to not putting the child's needs first," Cruise said.
Yacovone, who spoke before Cruise, said reunification is not the top goal.
"Our goal is the safety of children and permanency, of which reunification may be part," Yacovone said. Adoption or living with relatives are also options, he said.
Rep. Bill Lippert asked whether DCF uses the standard of the "best interest of the child" to make decisions.
Former social workers told him that DCF has shifted its policy away from the "best interest of the child." The change is in part driven by federal policy, Lippert said.
But Karen Shea, the director of DCF Child Protection and Field Operations, said there has not been a deliberate shift toward minimizing the best interest of the child. To remove a child from parental custody, the state must prove a parent is unfit to care for a child.
"The legal framework isn't 'best interest of the child,'" she said.
In the past five to eight years, DCF has spent more time training social workers to engage with families, understand their point of view and use that knowledge to determine whether a child is safe, Shea said.
Lippert suggested that at a future meeting the committee ask DCF, law enforcement and court officials to explain their policy around reunification and give examples of real life outcomes.
The committee has another hearing scheduled for Tuesday, July 29.