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Victims of the System: Can State Law and Policy Provide Adequate Protection For Our Children?

Victims of the System: Can State Law and Policy Provide Adequate Protection For Our Children?

Stephanie Thomson 

In the spring of 2014, the State of Vermont was reawakened to the issue of child abuse and child deaths. Although certainly not the first reported cases of child abuse resulting in death, the cases of Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw are all too familiar to many Vermonters. Dezirae Sheldon, only two years old, was found dead from serious cranial injury.[1] Similarly, Peighton Geraw, just over one year of age, was brought to a hospital in Burlington, Vermont, and pronounced dead from a severe head injury.[2] What both children had in common was their open case files with the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF).[3] Dezirae had been previously removed from her mother’s care and only been returned home a short time before her death,[4] and a DCF employee visited Peighton’s home on the same day of his death.[5] These incidents incited a public outcry to begin investigations of DCF procedures and policies regarding the care of children in Vermont.

Initially, a response came from the Governor of Vermont, the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services (AHS), and the Commissioner of DCF, outlining proposed modifications.[6] These changes included adding staff, hiring a new director, working more closely with various child abuse agencies, and creating a new board that would review the work performed by DCF employees.[7] While some turnover was seen at DCF offices (DCF Commissioner resigned during the fall of 2014), this declaration did not include a specific timeline for when or how these objectives would be accomplished.

The first constructive response came from a report compiled by a Vermont Citizen’s Advisory Board (VCAB), composed of various Vermont figureheads, exclusive of any Vermont state employees.[8] Within this report, areas of concern included: educational background of social workers, high turnover rate within DCF, confusion over family reunification policies, lack of uniformity within DCF policies and procedures, the call for strengthened communications between various state agencies, and clarification needed within statutory language.[9] The findings and recommendations relayed in the VCAB report are eye opening, at the very least. However, they are not far-reaching enough and they do not provide enough specificity to provide real guidance.

A marked step forward, as far as proposing some real change within the state, came with the introduction of S.9 An Act Relating To Improving Vermont’s System For Protecting Children From Abuse And Neglect.[10] Specifically in response to the deaths of Dezirae and Peighton,[11] this bill serves as a sort of hodge-podge of issues, including a new law that would hold a person liable for negligence for actions that lead to the abuse or death of a child, a report outlining the effectiveness of this new law, contact with children after a termination of parental rights, and the creation of both an oversight committee and a working group to review all proposed changes.[12] Currently, this bill has passed through the Vermont Senate and is being review by the Vermont House of Representatives.[13]

Every state encounters this same issue on some level, and Vermont is currently in the spotlight for a potentially great change to its child welfare system. This Note will address how this change can and should be made, by incorporating federal and state laws and various reports that have been compiled.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Bridget Shanahan, Inside the Dezirae Sheldon Case: A WPTZ Investigation, WPTZ (May 9, 2014, 1:43 PM),

[2] Shelby Cashman, Police: Death of Winooski Toddler Was Homicide, WCAX (May 27, 2014, 5:12 PM),

[3] Shanahan, supra note 1; Cashman, supra note 2.

[4] Shanahan, supra note 1.

[5] Cashman, supra note 2.

[6] Press Release, Vt. Dep’t for Children and Families, AHS Sec’y Racine & DCF Comm’r Yacovone Announce Several Steps to Improve Child Safety (June 26, 2014), available at

[7] Id.

[8] Joseph F. Hagan et al., Vermont Citizen’s Advisory Board Child Death Review Report, 29–30 (Nov. 7, 2014), available at

[9] Id. at 9, 15, 17, 19–21.

[10] S.9 An Act Relating to Improving Vermont’s System for Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Detailed Status,, (last visited Apr. 8, 2015).

[11] S.9 (Sec. 1(a)), 2015 Leg., 73rd Sess. (as passed by Senate, Feb. 25, 2015), available at

[12] Id. at Sec. 2(1304(a)), 5, 8, 17, 20.

[13] S.9, supra note 10.  

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