At nine recent meetings, state legislators faced people gathered to criticize the Vermont Department for Children and Families. Reading from a script, they asked the audience to recommend policies to improve an agency under fire for the recent deaths of two children who had been in its care.
But more often than not, what Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and the other members of the Committee on Child Protection heard were emotional personal stories about families involved with DCF and contradictory opinions about the agency.
Hiring more social workers would help. But throwing money at the problem won't solve anything.
Heads should roll at DCF. But the department is being unfairly scapegoated for problems it can't control.
On what is perhaps the key issue, opinions were also divided: Some said DCF is too slow to remove children from troubled families. Others complained it's too quick.
Burlington resident Kimberly Clark said at a hearing last Thursday in Winooski that her children had been taken from her unfairly. "I took all kinds of parenting classes," Clark said. "They never gave me a chance. I dealt with the court for almost five years. It's tearing me apart. I want my kids back. Can you guys look into this?"
Sarah Gallagher, a Calais resident who works for the Child Welfare Training Partnership, sees a different DCF. She said the department rightly emphasizes preserving ties with biological parents. "Children do better when they remain connected to people they care about and who care about them," Gallagher said. "Placement changes are bad for children."
Yet another opinion: Tom Halpin, an Essex Junction grandfather, said DCF and family court judges are too eager to reunite children with parents as soon as their troubled parents demonstrate any signs of stabilizing. Halpin said DCF should be more focused on keeping children in safer homes with other relatives or foster parents.
"There seems to be a wisdom that children are better off with their parents, and that's probably generally true, but frequently not," Halpin said. "It seems to take a nuclear explosion to change the order of the court."
It took a toddler's death to convene the Committee on Child Protection, composed of seven state senators and two representatives, which intends to draft a bill for the upcoming legislative session to address problems within DCF.
Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Rutland died on February 21, days after DCF returned her to a home where she had previously suffered a broken leg and other injuries. Her stepfather faces second-degree murder charges.
In April, Peighton Geraw was found dead an hour after a DCF investigator visited his Winooski home and saw bruises on his neck. Prosecutors have charged his mother, Nytosha LaForce, with second-degree murder. Her boyfriend told police she shook Peighton and slammed his head on the floor. She has pleaded not guilty.
The state has launched internal and external investigations of DCF's role in both cases. Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a series of quick reforms to increase staff and supervision and streamline operations at the department.
Strikingly, the toddler deaths didn't come up much in hearings held last week in St. Albans, Winooski, Middlebury, St. Johnsbury, Morrisville, Montpelier, Chester, Manchester and Rutland, according to Sears. Although there were oblique references to recent "tragedies," most speakers used the gatherings as a platform to talk about their own frustrations with DCF. In both St. Albans and Winooski, the crowds overflowed into adjacent hallways.
If lawmakers were hoping some consistent themes and problems would emerge, they were largely disappointed. Committee members said little during the hearings, except to tell audience members they would be gathering more testimony from outside experts in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Vermont Parole Board records obtained by Seven Days raise further questions about Nytosha LaForce's fitness as a mother after DCF entrusted her son to her.
At the time of her son's death, LaForce was on parole after serving more than two years in prison for stabbing a man in the neck. Days after Peighton's death, her parole was revoked and she returned to prison.
During a parole hearing, witnesses testified that she had engaged in a series of troubling behaviors around the time of her son's death.
Probation/parole supervisor Steve Bushey said that witnesses saw LaForce purchase and use heroin inside her home. They also claim she smuggled buprenorphine, an opiate used to wean drug addicts, out of a drug treatment clinic.
One friend, Nicole Chicoine, testified that LaForce tried to get a ride to the grocery store the night before a DCF officer was scheduled to visit her home in April to investigate a doctor's report that Peighton had unexplained injuries. There was apparently little food in the home, and LaForce wanted to impress the DCF investigator, according to Chicoine.
When Chicoine refused, LaForce went to Chicoine's home and yanked out a clump of her hair during a brief confrontation, according to her testimony.
After Peighton's death, Bushey testified, LaForce enlisted friends to help her place donation buckets at local businesses, ostensibly to raise money for Peighton's headstone.
However, LaForce took the money for herself, Bushey testified. One witness, Cassandra Blondin, told the parole board that LaForce said she bought marijuana with it.
Should DCF have seen this coming? Perhaps Halpin summed it up best at the hearing at the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski.
"I don't have the answers yet," the Essex Junction grandfather told lawmakers sitting a few feet from him. "Maybe somebody at this table can figure some of this out."
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