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Report Calls For New Staff, More Coordination, Accountability At DCF

Taylor Dobbs
Secretary of Human Services Harry Chen, left, and Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families Ken Schatz say restructuring DCF could do more harm than good for Vermont's children.

State officials say more staffing at the Department for Children and Families and more accountability to the public will go a long way to strengthen the state’s child protective services.

Those steps are part of an action plan Gov. Peter Shumlin requested after public outcry following the deaths of two toddlers under DCF supervision earlier this year.

Some have cited those deaths as an argument for a complete overhaul of the way the state handles abused and neglected children. But Agency of Human Services Acting Secretary Harry Chen believes that would weaken the department’s ability to protect and support families.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Chen said, “After reviewing all the information and feedback we received, we concluded that DCF should strengthen its approach to integrated services rather than engage in a major reorganization and the splitting up of the agency.”

"After reviewing all the information and feedback we received, we concluded that DCF should strengthen its approach to integrated services rather than engage in a major reorganization and the splitting up of the agency." - Acting Human Services Secretary Harry Chen

To improve the department, Chen and new DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz recommend they enhance staffing and training, update policies and practices, increase collaboration and communication with community partners and improve transparency. 

While DCF has added 27 positions recently and improved information sharing, the report indicates eight more positions should be filled immediately, with four more when possible.

The report also calls on the department to increase substance abuse expertise and enhance parent education efforts in each district.

Another goal, the report says, is to better integrate the 12 districts, and create a stronger team approach. 

One of DCF’s biggest challenges has been its lack of transparency and rocky relationship with the public. In the report, state officials say they need to develop a better way to ask for, and respond to public feedback -- creating a website, for example, or holding regular community forums.

The department also recommends additional oversight through a legislative committee and citizens advisory board.

Rutland Senator Peg Flory is part of the Legislative Child Protection Review Panel. She says those measures sound good. But she believes they ignore the underlying problem of confidentiality. “Until you deal with the confidentiality issue, what type of information would you expect this legislative oversight committee to receive?” she asks.

Flory says the legislative panel was supposed to have access to all sorts of DCF records, but getting information has been incredibly difficult. Flory says she’s prepared to ask lawmakers to consider changing confidentiality laws to address the situation.

Rutland Senator Kevin Mullin, another lawmaker on the Child Protection Panel, says he spoke to Secretary Chen Tuesday night about the report and feels much more optimistic about the direction the agency is taking.

“We’re going to push him as members of the child protection panel to probably go even further than where he’s gone in the report,” said Mullin. “But this is a huge step forward and both Commissioner Schatz and Dr. Chen are to be commended,” he added.

This won’t be the last word on DCF reforms. In addition to the state investigations, a national review of DCF conducted by Casey Family Programs is expected in November.

Taylor Dobbs contributed to this report.

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