Vermont legislators question rate of intervention
MONTPELIER -- A special legislative panel is expected to hear more this week about the rules governing Vermont's child welfare agency as it probes child protection issues following the deaths of two toddlers who had been in the state's care.
Some lawmakers have questioned the high percentage of abuse and neglect calls that are not accepted for some sort of intervention by the Department of Children and Families. Last year the department received 17,458 calls, 10 percent more than 2012. Of those, 70 percent were not accepted by DCF for either an investigation or assessment.
Committee member Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, wanted to know why other cases weren't investigated in a bid to make sure serious accusations weren't overlooked based on outdated rules.
"Is there criteria that ought to be updated?" she asked. "Are we dismissing ones that shouldn't be dismissed?"
The committee is seeking solutions to a child protection crisis following the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April. DCF had been involved with both children.
Peighton was found dead of head and neck trauma less than an hour after a DCF worker had visited his home because hospital workers noticed bruises on his neck during an emergency room visit two days earlier.
Records show Dezirae had a history of child abuse injuries, and her mother was convicted last year of cruelty to a child. An investigation has revealed that a DCF official was told in 2013 that Dezirae was abused by her stepfather, but that information was never given to the family's social worker or the child's court-appointed attorney before the child's death.
The attorney general's office found no criminal conduct by department staff, but found a lack of communication among social workers, the courts, law enforcement, medical personnel and others.
Second-degree murder charges have been filed against Dezirae's stepfather and Peighton's mother in the two cases. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Based on state law and department policy, a DCF supervisor decides whether a report can be accepted for invention. Factors include the age of the alleged victim, the alleged abuser's relationship with the child and the nature of the allegation, according to 2013 Report on Child Protection in Vermont released in June.
A report that is not accepted is reviewed a second time by another supervisor, who can decide to accept it.
But many reports do not meet the statutory definition of child abuse and neglect and there's duplication when different people call about the same situation, said Cindy Walcott, DCF's deputy commissioner of family services.
Someone might call to say they heard parents fighting and know there is child is in the home or a caller might report that the kids look dirty. The department also deals with calls from parents involved in contentious divorces who are complaining about each other.
In and of themselves, such concerns may not be child abuse or neglect under the law, Walcott said.
Jennifer Poehlmann, executive director of The Vermont Children's Alliance, a nonprofit group that represents all child advocacy centers in the state, said the intent of the process is to try to identify the cases most in need with limited resources.
"Anytime you try to narrow that number of cases that get that high level of examination you're going to have cases that fall by the wayside," she said.
It's up the legislature to decide if changes need to be made, Walcott said.
"I think that we are screening calls in accordance with current law and I think that the legislature is going to have to grapple with whether they think that's appropriate," she said.
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