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A closer look at how Vermont protects children - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

A closer look at how Vermont protects children

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Growing up without a real home is something Raelyn Parizo knows all too well.

"It's not like going into a family," she said. "You're like a number, I don't know, almost like a misfit."

From 12-17, Parizo was in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, floating from foster home to foster home. And now, her 2-year-old son is in DCF custody, one of the approximately 1,000 other foster children across the state. She was caught with drugs in her car with her son in the backseat. Now, she's trying to break what she calls the DCF cycle.

"They made me who I am," Parizo said. "The moving and the constant different places; I couldn't imagine how they put kids in foster homes."

Parizo says she is working hard to get her son back. That includes parenting classes with weekly reports sent to her DCF case worker, regular trips to the methadone clinic for opiate treatment and staying clean.

"Nine months I've been clean. You know, clean," she said. "And reunification with my son, and it's a long road."

A road Parizo says her friend, Nytosha Laforce, also traveled down. But police say Laforce's path led to tragedy. Laforce is charged with the second-degree murder of her 14-month-old son, Peighton Geraw, in April. Laforce's boyfriend, Tyler Chicoine, allegedly witnessed her slamming the toddler's head against the floor of their Winooski apartment.

DCF had been involved with Laforce and her son since Peighton was 6 months old. The baby originally came into DCF custody after Laforce fled Vermont last year, violating her parole for an earlier aggravated assault conviction. And family members told officials that Laforce had substance abuse problems since she was a young teen.

DCF Operations Director Karen Shea says when children like Peighton come into custody, a case plan is developed. Within that plan-- what the parents need to do to get their children back.

"What we're doing is matching those risks and dangers together with services and supports to address those risks and dangers," Shea explained.

In Laforce's case, that meant residential treatment at the Lund Family Center in Burlington. Peighton joined her there-- while still in DCF custody-- so Laforce could work on her parenting skills in a safe and supervised environment. After six months of counseling, parenting classes and drug testing, Laforce regained full custody.

Court documents reveal Laforce's DCF case worker at the time said Laforce graduated from the Lund program quickly because she proved:

  • That she could soothe, feed and take care of Peighton
  • That she could get Peighton to day care and to all of his appointments

Following the custody switch, DCF had no further contact with the family until five months later, the day Peighton died. Shea says that cease of contact is not unusual.

"There are times that we don't necessarily, the court or other parties in that process don't necessarily agree that we need to continue to be involved with the family's life," Shea said. "And so there are times when custody is transferred back to the parent and there's no order for the parent to continue to cooperate with DCF or to have contact with DCF."

And the only reason DCF was once again called in the Peighton Geraw case was because Fletcher Allen Health Care reported the child had unexplained bruising around his neck two days before he died. Prosecutors say it was protocol for a DCF worker to then respond to the home to investigate. And documents reveal that worker thought the child was asleep and never touched or held the child while he was there, despite noticing the bruising. An hour later the child was dead and prosecutors say the DCF worker will not face criminal charges.

But the case raises questions, not just about DCF protocols, but the child protection system as a whole. Lawmakers launched a series of statewide hearings as they search for possible changes. Laforce underwent parenting classes and was able to get her child back. But prosecutors say something went wrong.

Raelyn Parizo says she's also taking parenting classes at a DCF-approved nonprofit to get her son back.

DCF says family reunification is the goal. And about half of all children in DCF custody are eventually returned to their parents. But about 19 percent of them end up back in DCF custody again.

Parizo hopes to break that cycle.

"Oh, he'll be back with me," she said. "My son will be back with me."

Related Stories:

Prosecutor: DCF workers won't face charges in Vt. toddler death

Shumlin comments on DCF changes

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