Vermonters shared painful stories last week with lawmakers, stepping up to testify about drugs, alcohol, violence, abuse and their struggles to keep safe the children they love.
Many questioned the state’s policy of reunifying biological parents with children in cases of abuse. Several said the Department for Children and Families is in a state of crisis.
The hearings were originally prompted by the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon on Feb. 28. Her stepfather Dennis Duby, 31, is charged with second-degree murder after allegedly crushing the toddler’s skull with his hand. The Poultney toddler’s mother was convicted of child cruelty after Dezirae ended up in the hospital with two broken legs, but after an investigation a court allowed her to be reunited with her mother.
A special legislative panel formed in March to review state statutes that favor the reunification of parents with their children over other options.
Since then, two more toddlers have died: 14-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski and 22-month-old Mason Keithan of St. Johnsbury. Police ruled Geraw’s death a homicide and have charged his mother Nytosha Laforce with the crime. Keithan’s death is under investigation.
The families of both children have been involved with social workers from the child protection division of the Department for Children and Families.
The panel is not investigating the deaths of the three toddlers who had ties to DCF, but instead is looking for places the law could be changed to prevent future deaths.
At the hearings last week in Rutland, Middlebury, Manchester, St. Albans, Chester and Winooski, several themes emerged.
Parents, grandparents, foster parents, nurses, third-party social service providers spoke at length, and many called into question DCF’s overarching goal of reunifying children with their biological parents. Residents said they believed that reunification is not always best for the child.
Witnesses also spoke about complex, seemingly illogical court processes and the trauma caused to children when proceedings drag on.
Senators also heard concerns about DCF’s strict confidentiality policies.
“No. 1 is confidentiality is getting in the way of making good decisions,” said panel co-leader Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
Many speakers said they sympathize with well-meaning DCF social workers who are overburdened by higher-than-recommended caseloads. The average number of cases in Vermont is 16.3 per social worker, as of April, according to DCF.
Foster parents said some DCF district offices are better than others. In Manchester, one foster mother said the Bennington office social worker visits her home monthly whereas the Rutland social worker rarely comes.
Many people who attended the hearings did not speak. Many who did speak said they fear retaliation. Senators said they have received even more comments privately. State officials have said they will not retaliate against anyone who speaks at a hearing.
Tony Krulikowski, a guardian ad litem coordinator in southern Vermont, said DCF faces a “major crisis” that money alone won’t solve. There needs to be more mental health, housing, drug addiction services and foster parents, especially for adolescents, he said.
In Rutland, a home nurse for new mothers said she is frustrated after reporting abuse and neglect to no avail. She also advocated for more prompt placement and for keeping siblings together.
Grandparents and others caregivers said forced visits with parents who have abused the children are often traumatizing for the children.
In St. Albans, senators heard from three mothers who had their children taken away. They railed against what they called too-strict requirements for regaining custody. One woman said DCF took her children away from her after her abusive husband had gone to jail.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said she was concerned to hear one woman say DCF noted the mother’s hearing impairment as one reason for not returning her children.
“Things seem to vary so much community to community and that’s not a good thing,” Flory said.
But problems with the family services system extend beyond DCF, Flory said.
“There are problems that extend beyond DCF. They’re systemic problems,” she said. “Confidentiality doesn’t seem to be helping as far as getting the community, or various agency, responses.”
At the Winooski hearing, many third-party service providers talked about their relationship with DCF.
Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, said DCF too often ignores 16- and 17-year-old children, forcing him to house them at Spectrum longer than state law allows.
“We get tremendous pushback from DCF, who are not taking responsibility with these 16- and 17-year-olds,” Redmond said.
Beth Holden, from HowardCenter, said funding cuts for services are part of the problem, not only because DCF workers are overburdened, but because the families they serve need more services to help them learn to be better parents.
“Our DCF partners are functioning in crisis mode,” Holden said.
Grandmother Mary Somerville, of Colchester, was one of the last people to testify at the Winooski hearing, which attracted more than 100 people.
“Everybody dropped the ball on those two children and the ball continues to be dropped,” she said.
But DCF is not totally to blame, because teaching a person to be a better parent takes more than laws or case plans, Somerville said.
“It’s not about book knowledge, it’s about inside, deep-down knowledge from grandparents and aunts and uncles and what I’m finding is that with the situation in my family, it’s that when these guardians have any sort of opinion at all, they’re shut down,” she said.
On Tuesday the lawmakers plan to hold hearings in St. Johnsbury, Morrisville and Montpelier.