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Second Child Death Prompts Call For DCF Review

Rutland Senator Kevin Mullin says the recent death of a 15-month-old Winooski boy has made him even more determined to look into how Vermont’s Department for Children and Families operates and whether the state’s child protection laws need changing.  

Kevin Mullin is part of a senate committee that was formed after the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney. Sheldon died of a skull fracture, allegedly at the hands of her step-father. But the child had been abused before and DCF had been monitoring her situation.

News reports that quote a police affidavit say a DCF caseworker had visited the Winooski boy and noticed bruises just hours before his death.

Mullin calls the reports disturbing.

"I don’t think we know enough yet from our initial look to say that it’s just a DCF problem,” he says. “But one thing that is clear is the way you fix a problem internal to an organization is you have to change the culture of the organization. And that starts with the leadership at the top.”

"I don't think we know enough yet from our initial look to say that it's just a DCF problem. But one thing that is clear is the way you fix a problem internal to an organization is you have to change the culture of the organization. And that starts with the leadership at the top." - Sen. Kevin Mullin

He says it’s too early to know if DCF Commissioner Dave Yavacone should go.

But Mullin says the senate committee will begin holding public forums on child protection services across the state beginning June 3 and he hopes the public will weigh in.

While the senate committee is looking at potential changes to child protection policy, the Vermont Citizens Advisory Board has been tasked with investigating the actual circumstances surrounding the deaths of both children.

The board is a federally mandated panel that investigates every child fatality in the state. Mullin says the board’s role is appropriate, but he says it’s troubling that its investigation hasn’t started yet. “I’m still concerned that there isn’t really a thorough review happening properly. And,” Mullin adds, “maybe that’s just my being alarmist in nature. But I’m not assured that we’re truly getting an independent study being done.”

Burlington pediatrician Joseph Hagan, the longtime chair of the Vermont Citizens Advisory Board, disputes that. Hagan says before the board can review the two deaths, they have to wait for the state police to finish their investigations.

"We have a system that works most of the time, and we have statistics that say we work better than most of the states. What we don't know is are we doing things the best way that we possibly could and that's what we're here to find out." - Joseph Hagan, Vermont Citizens Advisory Board chairman

He says that while the CAB reviews all child fatalities in the state, Human Services Secretary Doug Racine asked the board to create a special team to investigate the Poultney and Winooski deaths with no state employees.   

Once the police investigation and human services internal investigation is completed, Hagan says his review board will be able to begin. "And I think it’s okay,” says Hagan, “because we know that we don’t have a broken system. Now I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced as I go into this thing by saying that. But we have a system that works most of the time, and we have statistics that say we work better than most of the states.”  Hagan says, “what we don’t know is are we doing things the best way that we possibly could and that’s what we’re here to find out."

Hagan says the fact that two children died from abuse within two months of each other is tragic, but he says he doesn’t think it indicates a systematic breakdown.

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