- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s new child safety law shifts the state’s priority in protecting children to their well-being from an imperative to reunite them with their families, officials said Monday during the governor’s bill-signing ceremony at his Statehouse office.

The workings of Vermont’s child protection system drew close 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.

The new law was written after a special legislative committee took testimony last summer from more than 1,000 witnesses who highlighted the flaws in Vermont’s child protection system. The state Department for Children and Families also has hired 18 more social workers and 12 more administrative personnel to keep better track of the cases of at-risk children.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, co-chair of the special committee, said Monday the new law changed the rules that required officials to consider as the first option reuniting a child with his or her family. He said it will bring about consistency in how child protection laws are applied across the state.

“The bill allows the court to consider the best interest of the child first,” Sears said. “It doesn’t mean that a child wouldn’t go back with their mother or father, or whomever, but it does set up a different sort of expectation that what we are going to be looking at is the best interest of the child.”

The new law also addresses a key problem identified in the state’s care of children: inadequate communication among the child-protection agency, family courts, law enforcement and others involved in protecting children.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said the measure makes it easier now for social workers, police, the courts and others involved in the care of children to communicate about specific cases. It also calls for more care in monitoring children who have been reunited with their families after the state gets involved.

“It breaks down silos,” Shumlin said of the new law. “When we look back on the tragedies we faced and asked ‘what did we do wrong,’ one of the answers was very clear, we weren’t communicating enough about each case to give the resources that we have the ability to succeed.”

Shumlin noted that a recurring problem encountered by the state’s child welfare agency is addiction to heroin and other opiate drugs that makes it impossible for some parents to care for their children.

“This bill does not mean that Vermont will succeed every time,” Shumlin said. “It just doesn’t. And as I said, with heroin addiction, the challenges are tougher, the offenses seem to be increasing, not decreasing.”

Second-degree murder charges are pending against Dezirae’s stepfather and Peighton’s mother. Both have pleaded not guilty.

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