The head of the Department for Children and Families on Monday took responsibility for substantial communication and systemic failures within his department that led to the death of a 2-year-old in February. Commissioner David Yacovone said he is stretched too thin given troubles in other department divisions.
Yacovone stopped short of saying better technology systems could have prevented the death of Poultney 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, or that of two other toddlers whose families had DCF connections who died recently. He said problems caused by 30-year-old computer systems contribute to a department already strapped for resources and a commissioner with too many balls in the air.
“There’s a multitude of different challenges across the department,” Yacovone said.
His comments came after Vermont State Police on Friday evening released a 40-page report showing a pattern of miscommunication between social workers, attorneys, police and others in the case of Dezirae Sheldon.
Dezirae’s stepfather Dennis Duby is charged with her murder, which came two weeks after a judge permanently reunited the toddler with her mother, Sandra Eastman. Social workers failed to note that Duby, who was suspected of being dangerous, still lived part-time with Eastman.
Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday said a police investigation found “serious system flaws that contributed to the tragic death of Dezirae Sheldon.”
“The communications breakdown that prevented everyone – including DCF workers, the judiciary, hospital workers, police and others – from having a full understanding of the threats she faced is unacceptable,” Shumlin said in a statement emailed by his spokeswoman.
Shumlin has announced a plan to hire 18 more social workers over the next year. The department will hire more substance abuse specialists, a domestic violence specialist and a nurse to help with clinically complex children, Yacovone said. DCF has also updated its policy on cases of serious child abuse, to have its central office review all cases in which social workers could reunify the child with parents.
The governor is also considering restructuring DCF, to separate the child protections division from the economic benefits division.
The commissioner Monday defended his leadership, saying firing him, as some want, won’t help.
“I didn’t create the tragedy, (but) I am responsible and accountable for the operations of the system,” he said.
Yacovone said given the many issues in DCF divisions, he has to prioritize where to spend limited resources.
“Given how damaged some of the infrastructure and lacking, no, I think probably the scope is too big and I think it should be adjusted,” Yacovone said in a phone interview Monday.
Through-the-roof error rates in the food stamps program have sapped resources, he said. The error rate this year is lower after intensive training and other remedies.
Technology systems in both the family services and the economic benefits divisions are both 30 years old, he said. The police report several times cites social workers who mention computer program problems.
Yacovone also acknowledged the communications breakdown in the Dezirae Sheldon case. He is trying to deduce whether that was abnormal.
“I have to assure the public that this is an aberration but I can’t assume anything,” he said.
Yacovone said he is trying to understand exactly what is happening on the ground. He oversees 1,000 employees as well as contracted employees and has a budget of $400 million, he said.
“I’m the CEO of a large department. I’m not on the ground level. You wouldn’t expect me to be on the ground level. I’m fortunate that I have a customer tracking system,” he said.
He receives managerial reports and has other ways of tracking the public’s satisfaction with DCF, including a “dashboard” that allows him to see how many complaints the department receives in each district.
While DCF can track accomplishments, it’s hard to track whether people are better off, especially in cases where a bad situation was prevented, Yacovone said.
While the root cause of the death is surely a combination of issues, it’s too soon to say what those are, Yacovone said. “I think resources certainly play here,” he said.
Still, the commissioner said he has lobbied for resources. DCF added 27 positions since he started as commissioner three and a half years ago, Yacovone said, and visitation rates with children have increased.
Social worker-to-client ratios have shrunk and are now around 1:16. The state recommendation is 1:12. In addition, the number of families with open DCF cases has grown from 80 in 2009 to 450 today, which he said is a good thing because those families can now access DCF services.
DCF has been criticized lately for its policy of trying, whenever possible, to reunify children with their parents. That happened in both Dezirae’s case and that of Peighton Geraw, the Winooski 14-month-old who died in April. His mother Nytasha Laforce is charged with his murder.
Yacovone defended the policy, but said it should nevertheless be examined.
“We should only reunify when it’s in the child’s best interest,” Yacovone said.
The assistant state’s attorney in the police report said DCF’s push for reunification often puts parents’ best interest ahead those of the child.
Several social workers as well as an attorney in the Dezirae report mention DCF’s push for reunification. Yacovone said DCF only reunifies when it is safe for the child.
The Rutland district DCF office, which handled Dezirae’s case, has placed 56 percent of children taken into DCF custody with biological parents the past five years, he said. The statewide average is 46 percent.
The number of cases where parental rights were terminated in that office increased from 2010 to 2013, Yacovone said. There were nine “TPRs” in 2009 and 13 in 2013, he said.
The federal government has benchmarks for placing children, but focuses on “permanency” rather than reunification. Federal regulators analyze state data to see how fast DCF is able to place the child in a permanent home.
“I think the pressure is more in establishing permanency (rather than on reunification),” Yacovone said.