DCF Battles Child Abuse in Vermont

By Alessandria Schumacher

In 2014, both child abuse and neglect are on the rise in Vermont. Calls to Vermont’s child protection hotline, a part of the Department for Children and Families (DCF), have overwhelmed DCF social workers and staff.

The death of Dezirae Sheldon in February and the death of a 15-month-old boy in April, both the result of domestic abuse, have brought the issue of child abuse to the forefront of many politicans agendas.

“A few years back we looked at child sexual abuse and made tremendous improvements in Vermont’s response, and hopefully the same will happen in Vermont’s response to physical child abuse,” Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said. Some of this increase in child abuse and especially neglect may be a consequence of the state’s growing heroin epidemic.

The child protection hotline received approximately 17,458 calls last year, about a 41 percent increase from 2007. Currently, DCF responds to about one in three calls, which is an improvement from 2007. Yet this response rate is just half the national average.

When DCF receives a call, a supervisor reviews the information and determines whether DCF should get involved.  If so, a regional supervisor reviews the call information again and DCF can respond.

According to Kate Piper, a former child abuse attorney and a current social science doctoral candidate, “from the data, it appears that Vermont is neglecting its neglect cases.” In some cases, child neglect can be equally as devastating as physical abuse.

Determining whether or not to respond can be difficult, especially in cases of neglect, when symptoms are not as easy to spot. Neglect is often identified through long-term patterns of injury, unlike the dramatic injuries characteristic of child abuse.

Vermont state law requires that children live with their parents whenever possible. Consequently, DCF walks a fine line between unnecessarily taking custody of children and leaving children in unsafe situations. Once a child is in DCF custody, administrators then have to decide if and when it is safe to reunite the child and parents.

“Nine times out of 10, their bios [biological parents] can’t take care of them in the first place,” Chittenden foster parent Bernie Hayes said. “That’s why they’re in custody, and it’s very disheartening to see these kids go back to these places.”

Many Vermonters believe the state pushes too hard for reunification, even when it is dangerous for the child. Nationally, Vermont ranks sixth in the number of children who end up back in foster care after being returned to their parents.

Child safety and DCF itself have been brought to the attention of the public and the Vermont legislature in light of two recent deaths.

In February, 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died from severe head trauma, allegedly committed by her stepfather. After Dezirae’s death, it was revealed that she had been under DCF custody before being returned to her mother, who had previously been convicted for cruelty to a child. Dezirae’s mother failed to get immediate treatment for Dezirae’s two broken legs.

The fact that Dezirae had been in DCF custody, but was returned to her mother, led to public outrage and government action.  The Senate created a panel of seven senators to determine what policy changes could have prevented Dezirae’s death and could prevent deaths like hers in the future.

In addition, DCF has begun an internal investigation of the mistakes made and of what the department can do to prevent a repeat incident. Governor Peter Shumlin ordered an external investigation as well, since Vermont is the only state in New England lacking an independent watchdog organization that oversees DCF.

The second death gave further credence to the need for policy reviews regarding child safety and DCF.  On April 4, a 15-month-old boy in Winooski was found to have stopped breathing, been taken to the hospital, and pronounced dead.  The cause of his death is unknown, but some suspect it to be the result of domestic abuse.

It is still unclear whether the child was under the supervision of DCF prior to the incident.  Privacy policies surrounding child-abuse cases are very stringent, sometimes inhibiting effective communication between the DCF and the individuals involved in abuse cases. This lack of transparency also reduces accountability within the department, leading to cases like Dezirae’s.

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