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Child protection agency chief recommends changes but no overhaul after 2 toddlers' deaths

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WILLISTON, Vermont — The Agency of Human Services' acting secretary said Wednesday he wants to increase staffing levels and training at the Department for Children and Families following the deaths of two toddlers in state care but is not calling for a major overhaul.

In the long-awaited plan commissioned after the toddlers' deaths, Acting Secretary Harry Chen said he felt splitting the divisions of DCF devoted to child protection and economic services would weaken its ability to protect and support families.

"What I heard from people is that we need to be more intentional about integrating and collaborating within the agency and with the community because, really, child protection is a community task, it's not just the government that does it," Chen said during a news conference at agency headquarters in Williston.

Besides the increased staffing and training, Chen called for better collaboration and communication between state agencies and others involved in protecting children. The report also calls for the creation of a legislative oversight committee.

The report was requested by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin after the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, and the April death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski.

Murder charges have been filed against Dezirae's stepfather and Peighton's mother, who have pleaded not guilty.

The cases led officials to question whether DCF had been doing everything it could to protect children, especially as the state grapples with burgeoning problems of heroin and prescription drug abuse.

The Legislature's Committee on Child Protection has been looking into Vermont's child welfare system since the children's deaths. State Sen. Richard Sears, the committee's co-chairman, said he'd seen the report but hadn't studied it.

Sears, D-Bennington, questioned the decision not to separate DCF's child protection duties from its financial services work, but he agreed with the idea of creating a formal legislative oversight committee.

"I think it's a good start," Sears said. "We are beginning to look at the fact that there's the law, then there's the policies of the department and then there are the procedures and sometimes they don't all fit together."

His committee is expected to submit its own recommendations, including possible legislative solutions, in mid-November.

Chen, speaking with new DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz, said a number of the changes have been implemented. The department has hired or is hiring 35 new employees and would like four more. In some districts, the new employees have helped reduce the caseloads of social workers from 23 to 16.

The report also outlined some changes that have already been made.

One change makes it mandatory for staff investigating or planning for cases involving serious injuries to children to consult with the central office. The report says there have been only 44 cases of serious physical abuse over a five-year-period and many social workers were unfamiliar with how to handle such cases.

Additional reports from outside groups are expected with recommendations about how to improve services.

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