Vermont child deaths: Union says blame the system, not DCF workers
By Brent Curtis
staff writer | June 22,2014
Members of the state employees union say talk of disciplining Department for Children and Families workers involved in the case of Dezirae Sheldon ignore the real problems with the system that contributed to the 2-year-old’s death.
The scrutiny of DCF has intensified since Dezirae’s alleged murder in February. Subsequently, 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski, another child under DCF’s supervision, died in what police called another homicide.
Days after some state legislators began calling for personnel changes in DCF, a spokesman for the Vermont State Employees Association said members are worried DCF workers are being made into scapegoats for a system of child protections that is understaffed and uses outdated technology to communicate.
“What our members want to tell the public is that, to a person, the employees are following procedures and instructions to the letter,” said Doug Gibson, communications coordinator for VSEA. “I’m hearing from the workers who are following the rules and procedures and they’re ripped apart by what happened (to Dezirae).”
Gibson said the union stands ready to represent any state employee who is disciplined in the case. He also said the union is mobilizing to appeal for additional staffing in DCF so employees can devote the proper time and attention to the cases they handle.
The agency currently has a ratio of one social worker per 16 clients, compared to the state recommendation of one per 12.
“The problem is statewide and we’re bringing in members to testify that they need more help,” Gibson said. “This is an essential service and if it’s not being properly serviced, that needs to be addressed.”
Police have said Dezirae was killed in February by her stepfather, Dennis Duby, who has pleaded innocent to second-degree murder.
A recent Vermont State Police probe into the handling of the case reported that DCF investigators and caseworkers collected evidence suggesting the stepfather may have abused the girl, then 1 year old, when she suffered two broken legs last year.
But the report said that evidence was never delivered to the prosecutor, who charged Dezirae’s mother, Sandra Eastman, with child abuse for neglecting to get medical care for the injured girl.
Dezirae was removed from Eastman’s care after her criminal conviction. But she was returned to her mother several months before her death.
No DCF employee has been officially disciplined for their handling of the case. But some state legislators called for personnel changes after the release of the police report, and Friday the Agency of Human Services announced that the head of the Rutland DCF office, John Zalenski, was being replaced by Lynne Klamm, the AHS field services director.
DCF Commissioner David Yacovone said the action involving Zalenski, who was transferred to the department’s central office, was not disciplinary.
Disciplinary or not, the move was lauded Saturday by Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who said last week that Yacovone had to make personnel changes or face the possibility of losing his own job.
“I do think it’s necessary what transpired (last) week,” Mullin said. “Too many people thought this was being swept under the rug.”
He added, “I don’t think anyone is trying to scapegoat anyone. I want to fix the system and its clearly broken.”
Yacovone, Human Services Secretary Doug Racine and Gov. Peter Shumlin have said that they are working to improve the system by adding 18 social workers and two social work supervisors to the agency.
They are also upgrading DCF’s 30-year-old technology, contracting with six specialists to assist social workers in cases where substance abuse is a factor in child abuse or neglect, and conducting a “stress test” of the system by contracting a private agency to probe for weaknesses in policies and procedures.
Shumlin has also called for a proposal to reorganize DCF to ensure that its focus is on protecting children. That work continues.
But for some, including Dezirae’s aunt, Lisa Marie Eastman, no system changes will hold accountable those whose mistakes contributed to the child’s death.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, my niece’s blood is on their hands,” she said. “There’s a price and they’re going to pay.”
Joan Vogel, a professor at the Vermont Law School who specializes in employment law, said the calls for disciplinary action are common in cases like the one involving Dezirae. But she added they aren’t always the right course of action.
“Vermont isn’t the only place where these kinds of horror stories happen,” she said. “And someone always wants someone’s head to fall when something horrible happens.”
If evidence exists that employee misconduct or incompetence was a factor, then firings should take place, she said.
But Vogel said if problems in an institution aren’t caused by employees, sacrificing good staff can allow flaws in a system to perpetuate and can create a chilling effect within the state agency.
“If the problem is that workers are overloaded and not properly staffed, it’s going to happen again,” she said. “Then you’ve got a real problem.”