In the wake of the homicides of two toddlers in the caseload of the Department for Children and Families less than two months apart, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Wednesday new measures to protect children from abuse.
Shumlin said the steps are not a response to the Dezirae Sheldon or Peighton Geraw cases, which are still under investigation, but an acknowledgement of systemic pressures on DCF.
The governor said the DCF central office will be required review cases of physical abuse when reunification with the parent may be considered.
Shumlin also asked Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine to prepare a report, due in August, to examine whether DCF should pare back some of its other work to focus on its core mission of protecting children and strengthening families. Over the past decade the department has taken on eligibility determinations and oversight of an array of safety net services for more than 200,000 Vermonters.
Shumlin said DCF will recruit 18 social workers starting in July and six substance abuse screeners. DCF employees will get additional training on how to handle cases that involve addiction and its impact on young children.
Reports of child abuse have doubled in the past five years in proportion to the number of substantiated cases of child abuse, said Cindy Walcott, DCF deputy commissioner.
Since the 2008 murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, the state has made an effort to improve training for "mandated reporters" - people such as nurses, clinicians, teachers and coaches who are legally required to report signs of abuse. Increased reporting has led to increased substantiation, but there has not been an increase in DCF funding.
During the same period that DCF saw its caseload double, its central office staff was reduced from 96 to 66, said David Yacovone, DCF commissioner.
Shumlin's measures are an improvement, Yacovone said, and will strengthen the central office's oversight capabilities but won't bring the department's resources back to pre-recession levels.
The steps Shumlin identified will be budget neutral, according to Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding.
The $1.6 million to fund the initiatives will come from caseload savings in the Reach Up program, federal matching funds and an offset by relying on full-time instead of temporary employees, Spaulding said.
The governor noted that additional steps could be taken in the coming months pending the results of the criminal investigation and a report from a special legislative investigation into DCF practices.