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Protecting Vermont's Children, Part Three: Unity Vs. Safety

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Zelijko Bozic
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Thinkstock
Many in Vermont who deal with kids in crisis believe the goal of reunification comes at too high a price.

Vermont state law mandates that whenever possible, children should be kept with their parents. But many who deal with kids in crisis believe the goal of reunification comes at too high a price.  

The death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, for example, left many wondering why Vermont’s Department for Children and Families would return a toddler to a household where she’d already suffered multiple broken legs – and where the mother was a sex offender who’d already been convicted of child cruelty and neglect. In February, the child was allegedly killed at the hands of her step father.

When the toddler's death came up at a recent meeting of current and former foster parents from Rutland County, the mood quickly changed. The group meets once a month to share advice, support and friendship; when someone mentioned Sheldon's name, Cinn Smith, who provided foster care in Rutland County for 23 years, blinked back tears.

"A year ago, when that child came in with broken legs – if that was a dog, that person would never have been allowed to have pets again," Smith said. "I mean, it’s just obscene to me that that child had to be sent back to that.” 

Bernie Hayes, a foster parent from Chittenden, believes the state pushes too hard to reunite kids with their biological parents.

"Nine times out of 10, their bios [biological parents] can't take care of them in the first place. That's why they're in custody and it's very disheartening to see these kids go back to these places." - Bernie Hayes, Chittenden foster parent

“Nine times out of 10, their bios [biological parents] can’t take care of them in the first place. That’s why they’re in custody and it’s very disheartening to see these kids go back to these places," Hayes said.

Statistics back him up. According to U.S. Health Department data, Vermont ranks sixth in the nation when it comes to children who end up back in foster care after they’ve been reunified with their parents. Child welfare advocates say that may suggest DCF is pushing for reunification before parents are ready or able to safely resume parenting.  

Part of the problem may be spotty record keeping and follow-through by DCF caseworkers, according to one long-time foster parent who asked that her name not be used.

“They’re also supposed to come in our homes once a month to check on the wellbeing of the little ones. The social worker’s supposed to come in once a month, but that never happens either – very rarely does it happen," she says. "So we could be doing God knows what to those children, 'cuz no one comes in to sit in your house to check on anyone’s well being.”

And if caseworkers are not making required follow-up visits, the foster parents wondered, how DCF could accurately present a child’s needs in court?

No one from the Rutland DCF office would comment for this series, but Attorney Linda Aylesworth Reis says the foster parents bring up a valid question. Aylesworth Reis frequently represents children and parents in Rutland and Addison County’s Juvenile Court.

"We could be doing God knows what to those children, 'cuz no one comes in to sit in your house to check on anyone's well being." - Anonymous foster parent

“And we all do absolutely rely on the social workers reports to tell us what’s been going on, how is the child doing, how is the foster placement working out," Aylesworth Reis says. "I will say this, that our social workers are over worked and underpaid. They have so many cases. These are serious cases, and every social worker I am in contact with works their butt off.”

Vermont’s Department for Children and Families has 146 social workers across the state. On average they each handle 16 cases at a time, though in some districts like Brattleboro, St. Albans, Hartford and St. Johnsbury, they juggle 22 or more. The national best practice ratio is one social worker for every 12 cases.

But Vermont has made progress. Since 2010, the state has added 27 additional social workers, which Aylesworth Reis and others say has been a big help. But she and DCF officials say it’s important to understand that social workers are only part of a larger team that works together on custody decisions. And she thinks family reunification, when possible, is the right goal.

“This is America. We don’t take children away and let someone else raise them unless we really have parental unfitness," Ayesworth Reis says.

Because of that, Karen Shea, DCF’s Child Protection and Field Operations Director, says the process to determine that unfitness is lengthy and complex.

"I think that there’s a notion to say to somebody, go do X, and if you don’t do that we can simply take their children," Shea says. "But there are checks and balances."

"I think that there's a notion to say to somebody, 'Go do X, and if you don't do that we can simply take [your] children.' But there are checks and balances." - Karen Shea, DCF child protection and field operations director

For instance, a child taken from a parent is assigned a guardian ad litem and a lawyer to protect their interests. The parents also have legal counsel.

DCF social workers create a detailed case plan that the parents need to follow to regain custody of their children. The plans include things like: finding and keeping a job, getting substance abuse counseling, staying drug free and finding suitable housing.

If parents are able to meet those goals and show improvement, attorney Linda Aylesworth Reis says state law dictates they should get their child back.

She believes that’s likely why Dezirae Sheldon was returned to her mother’s care.

"I can only surmise that in that horrible, heinous case, there was a case plan, with clearly identified goals that the parent met," she says. "And at what point do we as a society say well, you’ve met all those goals and you have this horrible history but have you been rehabilitated? Have you served all your probationary requirements; have you done everything we expected you to do in order to get your child back? And if the answer to that is yes, what right do we have to keep that child from you?”

At Rutland Northwest School, 6- and 7-year-old students enjoy their lunch hour recess. Counselor Nancy Spalding-Ness says she knows well the checks and balances of juvenile court, the yearlong assessments, the DCF case plans – and, sadly, the impact it all has on the kindergartners, first and second graders she works with.

"I think that once DCF is involved, I'm not sure that the goal should be keeping families together. I think once DCF is involved, the goal should be providing safety for kids." - Madison Akin, Rutland Northwest School counselor

“It would be so nice if that period of time could be shortened," she says. "Parents, you have so much time to prove that you say you want your child, but your actions show something completely different. And so that’s a piece I feel very passionate about.”

Counselor Madison Akin says when a 5-year-old student comes in her office and confides that she’s afraid to go home, you need to act.

“I think that once DCF is involved, I’m not sure that the goal should be keeping families together. I think once DCF is involved, the goal should be providing safety for kids," Akin says.

Akin says that it’s not always a happy day when kids and their parents all go home together, and we as a society have to come to grips with that.

This is the third installment in a series examining the strains on Vermont's child protection system. Find the rest of the series here:

Part One: Reports Of Abuse

Part Two: Assessing Neglect

Part Four: Unsung Heroes

Part Five: Moving Forward

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