Three separate investigations into the deaths of two children earlier this year have not yet produced results. But Gov. Peter Shumlin says he's not waiting before making changes.
"In both the cases of Dezirae and Peighton, we, as a state, have failed," said Shumlin, D-Vermont.
Dezirae Sheldon died in February when her stepfather allegedly crushed her head. Relatives argue Dezirae would have been safe had she remained in state custody following her mother's earlier conviction for child abuse.
Then in April, Peighton Geraw's breathing stopped one hour after a social worker visited the home to investigate possible abuse.
"I want to be very clear that today I am not talking about Dezirae's case, I'm not talking about Peighton's case," Shumlin said.
But the governor says the deaths did prompt an internal review to find improvements, all aimed at reducing caseloads per worker.
In 2011, the average worker oversaw 20 cases. That figure currently sits at 17, but even with the changes it will still be hard to reach the Legislature's recommended caseload of 12 per worker.
Human Services Secretary Doug Racine will be tasked with reorganizing the Department for Children and Families to shift current employees in other parts of DCF to investigate reported cases. Eighteen new social workers and six substance abuse screeners will also be hired.
"I think that's most welcome," Dr. Joe Hagan said.
Hagan is leading the Vermont Citizen's Advisory Board's independent investigation into the deaths of Dezirae and Peighton. He says adding staff makes sense because the number of reported and substantiated abuse cases doubled over the last five years. Hagan says tragedy is unavoidable given the volume of cases, but notes the state performs well when compared to others across the county.
"Clearly we can always do better and that's going to be the thrust of our review," Hagan said.
The board's review, which Shumlin has touted since February, hasn't begun in earnest yet though. That's because administration officials asked the board to wait for the state police investigation to finish, which only happened last week.
A legislative committee review is also only halfway complete and similarly has been limited to familiarization with how the system works to this point.
As for the criminal cases in the deaths of these two children, Dezirae Sheldon's stepfather, Dennis Duby, faces murder charges. But so far no one has been charged in the death of Peighton Geraw. Police say the death is the result of a homicide and the investigation is active.
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