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Report calls for changes to Vermont child protection practices in wake of toddler deaths

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WILLISTON, Vermont — A private assessment of how Vermont handles child protection cases released Thursday said workers need to be better trained and able to be more focused on their priorities by reducing workloads.

The report by Casey Family Programs comes after the death of two toddlers who were known to the state's Department for Children and Families. Former DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone asked Casey to review department practices following the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney and the April death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski.

The recommendations by Casey included strengthening the child protection workforce by giving secondary duties to paraprofessional staff; developing a workforce council of front-line staff; providing more training and guidance for social workers and expanding access to substance abuse experts for families in which drugs or alcohol are abused.

"Many FSD (Family Services Division) social workers struggle under excessive workloads which hinder their ability to do their jobs, and many need additional training and guidance in cored job functions including safety and risk assessment and safety planning," the report said.

The report noted that Vermont's number of child maltreatment fatalities was among the lowest in the country between 2008 and 2012, and the state is ranked second among the states for child well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Databook.

"Despite Vermont's overall performance in maintaining child safety, steps are urgently needed to keep vulnerable children from harm and to protect the state's status as a safe place for young people," the report said.

The foundation said it was aware that Vermont is facing fiscal challenges and it may not be easy to pay for improvements to the child protection system in 2015.

"It is the view of the assessment team however that failing to provide needed resources now will leave vulnerable Vermont children at risk and may ultimately prove more costly to the state in both human and fiscal terms than implementing needed steps in a timely way," the report said.

Acting Human Service's Secretary Harry Chen said many of the findings are similar to those in the agency's report to the governor and a recent report from a citizen's advisory board.

"These similarities reinforce the fact that the issues and concerns identified are valid and merit our immediate attention," Chen said.

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