Vermont DCF: New social workers merely a 'tourniquet'


MONTPELIER -- The state's move to hire more social workers in the wake of two child homicides this year is only a stopgap measure, DCF chief Dave Yacovone said Thursday.

Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told lawmakers Thursday he is in the emergency room and the new social workers DCF plans to hire are a "tourniquet."

"Short-term, now, I'm in crisis, I'm in the ER, so to speak," Yacovone told members of a House and Senate health care oversight committee at the Statehouse.

Yacovone was speaking about 17 new social workers, as well as 10 other positions the governor announced DCF will hire this year after the child deaths caused public outrage and questions about whether DCF effectively protects children from abuse.

The committee invited Yacovone, two other state officials and a representative from the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union to testify about protecting children from child abuse.

Lawmakers said they want proof this one-time staffing boost is the right way to solve ongoing internal problems at DCF. Yacovone said he agrees his department needs more than just extra hands on deck.

To get the ratio of social workers to cases down to the 1:12 ratio suggested in state law, DCF would need an extra 35 workers on top of the 17, Yacovone said.

That is not the goal, he said. Social workers intervene in situations that have already gone too far, Yacovone said. What DCF actually needs to do is work on preventing abuse or neglect from happening in the first place, he said.

"We really don't want to hire more social workers because when we hire social workers it's too late," he said

Yacovone also explained more about how DCF will pay for these workers. The approximately $1.6 million will come from shifting money around inside DCF's $400 million annual budget. The department also oversees food stamps, heating assistance and other economic services. The money will come from projected savings from Reach Up, a state program that helps families as parents look for jobs and has had fewer participants recently.

Lawmakers worried about using one-time savings from Reach Up to hire workers, whose salaries will need to be paid for years. Yacovone said budgets can be adjusted later.

The Legislature this year also passed a bill to expand the Reach Up program, using some of those same savings. That bill doesn't take effect until next year and Yacovone said he will spend Reach Up savings on social workers this year.

Rep. Anne O'Brien, D-Richmond, said perhaps more workers isn't what will fix the problems at DCF. She asked for evidence that this is the best solution.

"Maybe there's something else about that process or how we're evaluating the families that needs to be changed," she said.

"I couldn't agree more. Right now we need a tourniquet, though," Yacovone said.

The Reach Up savings should be around $2.4 million, he said, which will leave some money left over.

He also said that although talk has been of 17 workers, DCF will actually only hire 10 new workers, and convert seven temporary employees to full-time. The new workers won't be hired and trained until late this year at the earliest.

Other new positions include two supervisors, a domestic violence specialist, nurse, child safety manager and post-permanence manager to oversee ongoing services to children who are adopted. DCF will also contract with six substance abuse specialists to accompany social workers on investigations, Yacovone said.

The new social workers will work in district offices with the highest caseloads, which are around 20 cases per worker. Extra workers will also go to Rutland, which has received a spike in reports of abuse or neglect after the death of toddler Dezirae Sheldon, Yacovone said.

Yacovone talked about the "crisis mode" atmosphere at DCF caused by a lack of staff. Ten years ago, the central office had 96 employees but now it has around 60, meaning "there's always a sense of urgency."

A new manager will oversee issues related to foster care and help the approximately 1,100 licensed foster care homes, of which about 500 are active and need a lot of help and training, he said.

DCF will also use $150,000 in anticipated savings to further a successful program in Barre, Rutland and St. Albans that works to intervene with high-risk families earlier and connect them with services sooner.

About 30 percent of children with families who have open cases with DCF later end up in custody, which costs the state about $38,000 per year per child, Yacovone said. The intervention program in the past year has reduced that percentage to around 7 percent, and costs about $6,000 per child, he said.

The committee also heard from Erin Maguire, executive director of student support services at the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union.

From her experience, Maguire said the number of reports, called in by school officials, police and others, that DCF follows up on is too low. DCF operates in such crisis mode that workers can't thoroughly respond to cases, and cases slip through the cracks, she said.

DCF Child Protection & Field Operations Director Karen Shea also testified. She said compared to other states, DCF ranks well for the number of children it responds to. Although DCF ranks very low nationally for the number of calls to the abuse hotline that it accepts, that ranking is inaccurate because states calculate acceptance rates differently, she said.

The state this year is on track to receive more than 17,000 calls, DCF says.

DCF's computer system also lacks the ability to account for duplicate calls about one incident, officials said.


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