Don’t Rush To Judge DCF

This commentary by Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen was published March 2 in the Times Argus and the Rutland Herald. Kainen has represented parents in juvenile cases and was a foster parent. He is a former member of the Vermont House and served on the Justice for Children Task Force."

The death of Dezirae Sheldon is a tragedy. My heart goes out to those who loved and cared for her and advocated for her removal from her mother’s care. Investigating why and how it happened is completely appropriate.

But looking to lynch the Department for Children and Families is not constructive.

I am not privy to any of the facts in Dezirae’s case, but I am very familier with the child-protection system. DCF is under-resourced.

There are many dedicated DCF social workers who have made it their life’s work to help disadvantaged children. But due to crushing caseloads, they don’t have the time to address cases the way they would like to. This leads to burnout and a very high turnover rate in most district offices. Supervisors are ever needing to train new social workers.

The state and federal government have both been pushing DCF to avoid custody of children. In order to maintain federal subsidies, DCF is required to show that it made reasonable efforts to keep the child in the home before seeking removal. At what is called a temporary care hearing, the child goes back to the custodial parent unless the state can prove that such return "could result in a substantial danger to the physical health, mental health, welfare or safety of the child. 

The state can also prove that the child was physically or sexually abused by the parent, which would have been provable in Dezirae’s case. However, even if the state meets its initial burden, the court is required first to consider sending the child back to the custodial parent under a conditional care order (which might say: no use of corporal punishment, don’t use heroin, make the offending stepparent leave the home.)

Only if the court finds the child would still not be protected, may the court place the child with a noncustodial parent, other relative, or DCF. The statute says the child should go back unless there is a substantial risk.

That means that if there is only some risk to the child, the child is supposed to go back to the custodial parent. That puts DCF in the position of assuming the risk when the risk is not great.

I believe the drug epidemic has resulted in an explosion of abuse and neglect cases. In the past couple of months, there have been inquiries about why there are so many kids in custody. The 2008 Juvenile Proceedings Act was drafted with the idea of reducing the number of kids taken into custody and providing services to parents in order to advance their prompt return. 

Until something bad happens, the pressure is on the department no to take kids into custody. In between tragedies, DCF is regularly accused of violating parents’ rights because the department is taking too many children into custody.

It is not uncommon for DCF to receive anonymous reports that a parent is abusing a child, or using drugs, or neglecting a child. DCF investigates. There may be a half dozen people who claim they have heard that the child is abused or neglected; but when I say to DCF that I need a live body who has seen the parent abuse the child, or deal the heroin in front of the child, or has direct evidence of neglect, we can’t find someone who will testify. 

Innuendo, strong suspicion and 10 anonymous reports of the same thing are not proof. It may seem to the public that "everyone knows" a child is abused or neglected. But "everyone knows" is not enough to take a child into custody. 

The legal framework encourages return of the child to the to the custodial parent. DCF must follow the law. Against that backdrop, you have a department which has seen an explosion of cases that I believe are related to drugs. We are lucky to have a number of hardworking and dedicated social  workers, but they are under-resourced and working in a framework that encourages reunification with the custodial parent. 

I am very certain that there are social workers in the Rutland office who are agonizing over what they could have done differently to save that little girl. Dezirae’s death was a horrible tragedy. But rushing to blame dedicated social workers who are overworked and under-resourced is hardly constructive. 
The following letter appeared in the March 6, 2014, Rutland Herald:

I am writing in support of State’s Attorney Michael Kainen’s remarks in Sunday’s Rutland Herald. Mr. Kainen concluded, “Dezirae’s death was a horrible tragedy. But rushing to blame dedicated social workers who are overworked and under-resourced is hardly constructive.”

My condolences go out to Dezirae’s family as well as the workers at DCF.

Imagine being a worker at DCF, an agency that only makes the news when horrific tragedies occur. “Another successful adoption,” or “Teen placed in safe home” are headlines that you will never see in the paper, since everything you do is protected by privacy provisions.

Federal and state laws mandate that every effort be made to return children in custody to their biological parents. Proof of abuse is hard to establish, and the same people who will vilify you when tragedy occurs don’t want to stick their necks out and get the proof (and then testify in court) as is required by law.

As a worker at DCF, you know that ensuring the health and safety of Vermont’s children is a major priority of most citizens. But every year, as a DCF worker, you see your share of the state budget decrease while your workload increases.

If you still feel the need to blame someone, please take the outrage you feel and place it firmly where it belongs: on the person the state charges, tries and convicts for this heinous crime. Then re-dedicate yourself to doing what you can to support social services in your community, either with a group or as an individual.

I am lucky enough to be part of one of the hundreds of DCF cases that ended happier than a Hollywood movie. I just wanted to publicly thank DCF for the opportunity they provided me and my family.


West Rutland