State panel takes testimony on protecting kids


MONTPELIER (AP) -- Information gaps among Vermont agencies and personnel and a push to return children in state custody back to their parents undermined state protective services leading up to a Poultney toddler’s death after she suffered severe head trauma, Vermont State Police Detective James Cruise told a special legislative committee Wednesday.

The committee is seeking solutions to a child protection crisis, following the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April. Police also are investigating the death Tuesday of a third toddler in Shelburne and the case of a Burlington infant who was hospitalized in a coma Wednesday.

Dezirae’s stepfather has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in her death; Peighton’s mother also has pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge.

State Police Director Tom L’Esperance wrote in response to questions from the committee that a key shortcoming in the state’s handling of Dezirae’s case "was the failure to identify the actual offender who broke the child’s leg, and then continuing the process, without knowing this information."

An investigation has revealed that a Vermont Department of Children and Families official was told in 2013 that Dezirae was abused by her stepfather, but that information was never given to the family’s social worker or the child’s court-appointed attorney before the child’s death.

Earlier in the hearing, DCF Commissioner David Yacavone told lawmakers his department is renewing its goal of ensuring children’s safety over reuniting them with their parents.

"It’s important for our staff to know that our goal is not reunification. Our goal is the safety of children and permanence of which reunification may be part of," he said.

Under questioning, he also said he would be willing to consider changing confidentiality laws so information could be shared about the cases.

"I’m not satisfied with the status quo on confidentiality," he said.

He also said child protection practices can’t be improved without sufficient staffing, he added.

"If you’re always rushing, if you’re always behind, you cannot do the job that’s needed to protect children and strengthen families," he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said in May he would beef up the agency’s staffing levels to reduce workloads, which have doubled in the last five years as the state has struggled with heroin and opiate drug problems.

The department will be adding 17 social workers in areas where the caseload ratio is the highest, Yacavone said. It also will add supervisor positions in two districts and a domestic violence specialist among other staff.


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