Vt. DCF Commissioner: Communications Broke Down

Montpelier — The head of the Department for Children and Families on Monday took responsibility for substantial communication and systemic failures within his department that led to the death of a 2-year-old in February.

Commissioner David Yacovone said he is stretched too thin given troubles in other department divisions.

Yacovone stopped short of saying better technology systems could have prevented the death of Poultney 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, or that of two other toddlers who died recently whose families had DCF connections. He said problems caused by 30-year-old computer systems contribute in a department already strapped for resources with a commissioner who has too many balls in the air.

“There’s a multitude of different challenges across the department,” Yacovone said.

His comments came after State Police on Friday evening released a 40-page report showing a pattern of miscommunication between social workers, attorneys, police and others in the case of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon.

Dezirae was hospitalized on Feb. 14, 2013, when both her legs were broken as a result of alleged abuse. She was a 1-year-old at the time.

The toddler had been in pain for several days and was unable to crawl, according to the report. Sandra Eastman, Dezirae’s mother, did not take Dezirae to Rutland Regional Medical Center because she said she didn’t have a ride; she didn’t call for an ambulance because she said she thought she would get in trouble.

At the hospital, DCF immediately took Dezirae into emergency custody and told Eastman she would not get her daughter back until she explained how the baby’s legs were broken.

Eastman was eventually charged with cruelty to a child under the age of 10, for failing to provide medical aid in a timely manner. Dennis Duby, Eastman’s boyfriend, was never questioned by law enforcement even though he told a DCF investigator that two weeks before Dezirae was hospitalized, he dropped the toddler in a Pack ‘n Play crib, which caused the facial bruising that according to one description spanned an area from her forehead to below her cheekbone.

Later Eastman appealed the decision and blamed Duby for the injuries. Duby was never questioned by law enforcement.

The couple married when Eastman became pregnant with Duby’s child, shortly after Dezirae was removed from Eastman’s home in February 2013. Yet DCF officials were unaware of Duby’s presence in the household when they reunified the toddler with her mother in October 2013. A judge approved permanent reunification of Dezirae with her mother at a court hearing on Feb. 6, 2014, eight days before the toddler was killed.

Duby is charged with Dezirae’s murder after he allegedly crushed her skull.

Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday said a police investigation found “serious system flaws that contributed to the tragic death of Dezirae Sheldon.”

“The communications breakdown that prevented everyone — including DCF workers, the judiciary, hospital workers, police and others — from having a full understanding of the threats she faced is unacceptable,” Shumlin said in a statement emailed by his spokeswoman.

Shumlin has announced a plan to hire 18 more social workers over the next year. The department will hire more substance abuse specialists, a domestic violence specialist and a nurse to help with clinically complex children, Yacovone said. DCF has also updated its policy on cases of serious child abuse, to have its central office review all cases in which social workers could reunify the child with parents.

The governor is also considering restructuring DCF, to separate the child protections division from the economic benefits division.

The commissioner Monday defended his leadership, saying firing him, as some want, won’t help.

“I didn’t create the tragedy, (but) I am responsible and accountable for the operations of the system,” Yacavone said.

Yacovone said given the many issues in DCF divisions, he has to prioritize where to spend limited resources.

“Given how damaged some of the infrastructure and lacking ... I think probably the scope is too big, and I think it should be adjusted,” Yacovone said in a phone interview Monday.

Through-the-roof error rates in the state’s food stamps program have sapped resources, he said. The error rate this year is lower after intensive training and other remedies.

Technology systems in both the family services and the economic benefits divisions are both 30 years old, he said. The State Police report several times cites social workers who mention computer program problems.

Yacovone also acknowledged the communications breakdown in the Dezirae Sheldon case. He is trying to deduce whether that was abnormal.

“I have to assure the public that this is an aberration but I can’t assume anything,” he said.

Yacovone said he is trying to understand exactly what is happening on the ground. He oversees 1,000 employees as well as contracted employees and has a budget of $400 million, he said.

“I’m the CEO of a large department. I’m not on the ground level. You wouldn’t expect me to be on the ground level. I’m fortunate that I have a customer tracking system,” he said.

He receives managerial reports and has other ways of tracking the public’s satisfaction with DCF, including a “dashboard” that allows him to see how many complaints the department receives in each district.

While DCF can track accomplishments, it’s hard to track whether people are better off, especially in cases where a bad situation was prevented, Yacovone said.

While the root cause of Dezirae’s death is surely a combination of issues, it’s too soon to say what those are, Yacovone said. “I think resources certainly play here,” he said.

Still, the commissioner said he has lobbied for resources. DCF added 27 positions since he started as commissioner three and a half years ago, Yacovone said, and visitation rates with children have increased.

Social worker-to-client ratios have shrunk and are now around 1:16. The state recommendation is 1:12. In addition, the number of families with open DCF cases has grown from 80 in 2009 to 450 today, which he said is a good thing because those families can now access DCF services.

DCF has been criticized lately for its policy of trying, whenever possible, to reunify children with their parents. That happened in both Dezirae’s case and that of Peighton Geraw, the Winooski 14-month-old who died in April. His mother Nytasha Laforce is charged with his murder.

The death of a third toddler, 22-month-old Mason Keithan, of St. Johnsbury, is under investigation.

Yacovone defended the policy, but said it should nevertheless be examined.

“We should only reunify when it’s in the child’s best interest,” Yacovone said.

The assistant state’s attorney in the State Police report said DCF’s push for reunification often puts parents’ best interest ahead those of the child.

Several social workers as well as an attorney in the Dezirae report mention DCF’s push for reunification.

The Rutland district DCF office, which handled Dezirae’s case, has placed 56 percent of children taken into DCF custody with biological parents the past five years, he said. The statewide average is 46 percent.

The number of cases where parental rights were terminated in that office increased from 2010 to 2013, Yacovone said. There were nine “TPRs” in 2009 and 13 in 2013, he said.

The federal government has benchmarks for placing children, but focuses on “permanency” rather than reunification. Federal regulators analyze state data to see how fast DCF is able to place the child in a permanent home.

“I think the pressure is more in establishing permanency (rather than on reunification),” Yacovone said.