- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The judge who oversees administration of Vermont’s trial court system said Monday he’s hopeful a child protection bill just sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin will improve communications between social workers, police and the courts.

A House-Senate conference committee agreed Friday, and the full House and Senate followed suit, on final terms of a package of measures that came in response to the alleged child abuse deaths last year of two young children whose families had had contact with the state Department for Children and Families.

“The more information we have, the better decision we can make,” Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said in an interview Monday. Aside from his administrative role, Grearson said he still sometimes presides at Family Court hearings to determine whether a child is in need of care or supervision by the state.

Current law has the courts relying on information brought by state’s attorneys and other lawyers in cases of alleged child abuse or neglect. The new measure will allow courts greater access to information, including, in one example, the ability to seek a fuller case file directly from the Department for Children and Families.

Vermont’s child protection system came under heavy scrutiny last year after 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski died in April. Second-degree murder charges have been filed against Dezirae’s stepfather and Peighton’s mother. Both have pleaded innocent.

Follow-up investigations pointed to heavy social worker caseloads and inconsistent application of procedures and laws around the state. It also found too much emphasis by child protection workers on reuniting children with their families. The new legislation makes clear that the goal should be simply to work in the best interests of the child.

The bill takes several steps designed to produce a more systematic approach to child protection. One change was to try to bring the criminal laws on child abuse and neglect, which govern charges police and prosecutors can bring, in line with the child-protection statutes that govern the activities of state social workers.

“We heard from a lot of people that practice, policy and law enforcement don’t all match up when it comes to DCF (the Department of Children and Families),” said Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a key author of the legislation. “Our hope is to have all of those things align more closely.”

The new bill allows teachers, health care workers and other “mandatory reporters” required by law to notify DCF of suspected abuse or neglect to hear back that the case is being investigated. But officials said that feedback loop still will not include members of the general public who report concerns to the state.

A continuing concern both for Ken Schatz, the DCF commissioner, and Sheila Reed, associate director of the advocacy group Voices For Vermont’s Children, is what both termed an insufficient number of state social workers to handle the workload.

Schatz said the ideal workload would be about 12 cases per social worker at any given time. The current number is about 17, he said.

Reed said, “Until we get the resources we need, there are going to be children in danger in the state of Vermont.”

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