By Steph Machado
At least two heartbreaking deaths of toddlers occurred in Vermont recently and the state’s Department for Children and Families may have been able to prevent them.
In one case, police said 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon was murdered by her stepfather, just weeks after DCF and a judge allowed the child to return home. DCF originally took custody of the child after her mother broke both of the child’s legs. In the second case, 14-month-old Peighton Geraw died. Police charged his mother with second-degree murder and, according to court documents, a DCF caseworker visited the child’s home just one hour before his death.
While several state internal and external investigations are ongoing, I wanted to know if DCF caseworkers are being more diligent about reporting possible child abuse to police, or more frequently asking police to accompany them on home visits. These two questions are important because caseworkers can’t remove a child from a home without a court order or a police officer, and calls coming into DCF have increased — DCF received 15,760 calls two years ago, but this year the numbers are on track to hit 18,000.
I submitted requests under Vermont’s public records law to both DCF and Vermont State police, asking for the number of times DCF reported child abuse to police. To me, this seemed like a simple request.
DCF responded, however, that it “does not track the data you requested for analysis.” DCF’s commissioner, Dave Yacovone, said the department’s I.T. system just isn’t set up to do so. State Police said the same thing, blaming their records management system and insisting they would need to hand-count the reports, estimating it would take 20 full work days to conduct that count. The 20-day estimate is significant because Vermont’s public records law allows the requestor to be charged for the time necessary to complete his or her request.
While DCF was willing to talk on camera about this lack of reporting capability, the state police department refused, declining the opportunity to defend itself even after I explained that the New York State Police records management system, in comparison, could easily provide the equivalent data.
State Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs a legislative panel that is re-evaluating Vermont child abuse laws in response to the deaths of Sheldon and Geraw, called this lack of data shocking. “That is something the committee will have to look into, I assure you,” Sears said.
Another member of the panel, State Rep. Ann Pugh, said she is less surprised. Pugh previously worked in the field as a social worker and said she knows the pitfalls of DCF’s I.T. systems. “Our records don’t talk to each other,” she said. “Our I.T. system for family services is from the dark ages.”
While the I.T. and data collection problems may be just a part of the much larger issue of children’s safety, these deficiencies certainly make the job of those protecting the state’s children more difficult. Indeed, according to Vermont’s attorney general, they contributed to Dezirae Sheldon’s death.
Steph Machado is a reporter for FOX44 and ABC22 News. She can be emailed at SMachado@fox44now.com.