The dismantling of the Child Development Division

By Chloe Learey, Executive Director. Published in the Brattleboro Reformer, February 11, 2021, The Commons, February 17, 2021, and VTDigger, February 16, 2021

Vermont Department for Children and Families Commissioner Sean Brown testified before the House Human Services and Education Committees on Friday, January 29, about the proposal from Governor Scott’s administration to move child development activities from one division to other departments and agencies based on the areas of expertise. He said this is the beginning of a conversation and a process for engagement of key stakeholders to get input. It was clear that the input would be about how to accomplish it, rather than whether to even try.

In fact, it seems that the process for implementing this policy has already begun.

It is noteworthy that no staff in the Child Development Division (CDD) testified on January 29, making it unclear how they were involved with or informed about the details of the proposal.

Why have senior staff and key leadership from the administration’s inside experts on child development, and how it is supported in Vermont not been front and center? The deputy commissioner appointed in February 2020 left as of December 31, 2020, only filling the position for 10 months. As of the first week in February, an interim deputy commissioner without intimate knowledge of CDD, has been chosen. The director of Children’s Integrated Services (CIS) departed in September 2020. The position was downgraded in a restructuring of the division and interviews have been done. In a meeting with community providers on Thursday, February 4, it was announced that the position would not be filled right now given all the uncertainty of the future with the governor’s proposal. A newly created leadership position in the restructuring, director of programs, is filled by someone new to CDD. It is an interesting strategy to make a major proposal to change state government, not involve your in-house experts on the proposal, and then make it appear inevitable that the division goes away because there is no one in leadership who can adequately represent the work of the division being dismantled.

Other evidence of this policy being actively implemented is a proposal to place funding with the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) for home visiting that would normally be considered part of Children’s Integrated Services and thus placed in CDD. This move comes directly from the proposal in which VDH becomes the new department for all home visiting activities. The administration is not waiting to get input about how to make these changes and planning to implement them in July 2022, as stated in testimony. It is actively making changes now.

It is disingenuous at best to pretend that this is a conversation right now. Members of the House Human Services and Education Committees raised concerns about this dramatic shift in how the state supports our youngest children and their families. Representative Jessica Brumsted (D-Shelburne) asked if families had been consulted about whether or not the system was working for them, and what the impact would be on their lives if child development services were dis-integrated. At this rate of change, families will not get to weigh in. The promises of “more efficiency, better outcomes, more services” from the administration all fly in the face of what we know happens when services go back into silos.

Let’s look at the good outcomes we have now, work to improve the existing systems and make the investment we need to fully realize the potential of integration. For instance, if we had a CIS data system, which the state has been working on for at least a decade, and we did not have to track data by hand, we would be in an even stronger position to demonstrate why integrated services produce better outcomes. Let’s not upend our progress because it has been challenging to figure out how to manage 10 hours a week of public pre-K funding between the Agency of Human Services and the Agency of Education. Moving the furniture (e.g. state agencies, programs, responsibilities, personnel) around isn’t a solution for the long-term, historical, and fundamental problem that state agencies have not demonstrated an ability to work well together, especially when it’s about young children.

This work requires collaboration and cooperation. Instead of shifting to one or the other government structure, the effort should go into creating conditions for effective cross-agency work. Children and families should not bear the cost of the inability or unwillingness of government and their agencies to work together

Chloe Learey is the executive director of the 50-year old Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro. She serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council, a governor-appointed body that advises the administration and legislature on early childhood care, health, and education systems. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.