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Child and family chief seeks legislative oversight, outlines changes since 2 toddlers' deaths

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — Vermont's new commissioner of the Department for Children and Families asked lawmakers Thursday for ongoing legislative oversight of the agency and described several changes made since the deaths of two toddlers this year who had been in the state's care.

Commissioner Ken Schatz testified before a special legislative committee looking into the workings of the department following the deaths of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw and 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in separate incidents. In each case, a relative of the child has been charged with second-degree murder.

"I come into this role understanding that the challenges are daunting," Schatz said. "But I do have an optimistic approach ... (and) reason to believe that we can make some positive strides to improving services for children and families."

Schatz said changes have been made since the children's deaths. They include:

— Mandatory consultations with district and central staff and in all cases of serious physical injury;

— Policy changes so that a child placed in a residential facility cannot be returned to a parent until the department has monitored the child at the parent's home;

— Retaining the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare for consultation and the Casey Family Programs for system and case reviews;

— Hiring 18 social workers, a child safety manager, two supervisors in Barre and St. Albans, and a domestic violence specialist in Rutland.

He said the agency also commits to ongoing improvement, working with recommendations from the National Commission on Child Fatalities and through a review by the Child and Family Services Review system. Substance abuse screeners also will be hired and deployed to four districts in the state that don't already have them.

In addition, Schatz said, he would work on improving communication between law enforcement and service providers.

"We understand that they are partners," he said. "We believe that when you work with partners you need to communicate. It's a challenge for us because of some of our systems and resource issues, but I want to tell you that we intend to address that challenge."

He told the panel that Vermont needs laws to better address opiate abuse and its effects on child protection and treatment services.

"In both cases, we need to do it in such a way that it doesn't provide a disincentive for families to identify themselves, undertake treatment. But at the same time, we need to make sure that we protect children," he said.

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