RUTLAND — A panel of lawmakers starting a tour to get a public perspective on how well the state agency that is charged with protecting children is doing was told Tuesday that the needs of children should be put ahead of the goal of reunifying biological families.
Some of the people who spoke during the 90-minute hearing at Rutland High School on Tuesday night, the panel’s third stop of the day, praised the efforts of the state’s social workers but said many were overworked and needlessly bound by a legal system that isn’t always as responsive to the needs of the children as the speakers felt it should be.
But a theme that came up several times during the hearing of the Legislature’s Committee on Child Protection was the perception that the Department for Children and Families places the goal of family reunification ahead of the best interest of the children.
“While it’s commendable that children should go to biological relatives, they are not always the best placement,” said Stephanie Mozzer, of North Clarendon, a pediatric and maternal health nurse who visits new mothers and children in their homes. “Placements should be made for the well-being of the child, not the genetic match.”
The committee was formed and the hearings called in the aftermath of the deaths of two toddlers in separate incidents. Committee Co-Chairman Richard Sears, a Democratic senator from Bennington, said the hearings were not called to investigate the role of DCF in those cases, but to gather opinions about the workings of the department.
“It was clear there were issues that many people had had over the years with the policies of DCF and with our child protection laws,” Sears said. “The deaths kind of prompted the look-see.”
But the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, and the April death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, who died hours after being seen by a social worker, hung over the hearing.
“To have one child die in unbelievable. To have two is beyond comprehension,” said Caprice Hover, now the executive director of the Rutland County Parent Child Center, who said she was in state custody as a child.
Peighton’s death has been ruled a homicide, and his mother is facing second-degree murder charges. Dezirae’s stepfather has been charged with second-degree murder. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Before the Rutland hearing, the committee met in Chester and Manchester. Additional hearings are planned later this month.
The deaths of the two children also prompted Gov. Peter Shumlin to order a number of changes at DCF, including increased staffing and increased training.
The department’s workload has doubled in the last five years as the state has struggled with heroin and opiate addiction problems.
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