Cyrus Patten

Two children died recently. There is no escaping the conclusion that they were failed by the system intended to protect them. Yet we’ve been told our system has not failed.

The discussion around these tragedies has focused on blame. Blaming the social workers that may have been the last responsible adults to see the children. I can relate to the need to find blame in the aftermath of what will be a piercingly vivid moment in collective memory.

I’ve walked more than a mile in their shoes. For several years I was a child protection social worker. In 2008, my team investigated an allegation of child abuse of a newborn. He showed no marks from the abuse and I was therefore unable to act within the parameters of my role and my authority. Two weeks later, the child was dead. Killed by his father who had a history of domestic violence.

My team had no authority to remove that child despite the evident risk factors. Vermont social workers are just as powerless.

Although it provides a fleeting relief to blame them, the social workers did not cause this. These tragedies were caused by a deeply flawed system. The community has been raising red flags of concern for years because the insiders are muzzled.

A series of failed attempts at reform have left us with an ineffective child protection system hamstrung by bureaucracy. Blaming social workers that function in a broken system is akin to blaming fish for dying in polluted water.


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Let us instead change the culture of politics that pervades the Agency of Human Services. Changing organizational culture is rarely easy or fast. And it rarely changes without accompanying leadership changes. Though I would caution that calling for the resignation of Commissioner Yacavone and Secretary Racine will change nothing if they are replaced with other politicians as is likely.

Let’s stop blaming individuals and start critically examining the construct that allows innocent children to die. With a few key reforms, we could potentially avoid another child fatality.

* The Agency of Human Services is structured to create a completely compartmentalized view of the child and family. Despite repeated attempts to break down these silos through various reform efforts, the stubbornness of bureaucracy (read: individuals lacking courage) has prevented any real transformation. Break down the silos once and for all, creating a common view of the client.

* Vermont caseloads are 130 percent of the national standard. More social workers will immediately ease this pressure and allow them to focus on helping bad parents become good ones. For those concerned with spending more on AHS, we don’t need more money. The AHS budget has grown by an average of 5.5 percent annually since 2008; a cumulative 46 percent or $729 million during the same period.

* Revise Chapter 49, Title 33 of the Vermont Statutes to empower and require social workers to complete a thorough assessment of the child’s wellbeing. Including the requirement of a home visit and face-to-face with the child for every allegation of maltreatment.

* Include a provision that compels the State to intervene when abuse is present. No, this is not the case currently.

* Revise family reunification policies that currently return children to unsafe, poisonous homes because of arbitrary mandates.

* The policy known as "Differential Response" was a failed experiment. The Department for Children and Families will have us believe the decreasing numbers of children in their custody is a result of safer children and thus fewer removals from the home. This is a lie. We are ignoring calls for help made by concerned citizens, resulting in more kids being hurt. But boy those charts look good. In reality, Vermont ranks second to last in the percentage of abuse and neglect calls that are actually investigated.

* Start tracking reoccurrence of abuse and neglect. These numbers will tell us which families need intensive intervention.

* Open up the reporting process so that community organizations can partner with DCF to help families. In the current model, reports are made by professionals that serve families, and they never know if their concern is being addressed.

* Child abuse and substance addiction are highly correlated. We can’t solve one without addressing the other. We need to effectively integrate substance abuse treatment services with child welfare services.

* Current policies set an essentially unachievable burden of proof on the social worker to prove neglect. Yet child neglect can be just as harmful on the developing child.

These suggestions are a starting point. There are people within DCF that know which reforms will make kids safer. Let’s listen to them and put in place reforms that will generate results and keep our kids safe.

Cyrus Patten is a licensed social worker and executive director of Campaign for Vermont, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization.