Story + Video: Shumlin says $8.4 million needed to boost child protection

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday laid out an $8.4 million plan to add 35 workers at the Department for Children and Families as well as an additional superior court judge and increased resources for the Defender General and State’s Attorneys Offices because of a growing demand for child protection services.

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Gov. Peter Shumlin announces an $8.4 million proposal to add more social workers and increase resources for the judicial system to help address opiate addiction and child protection in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Shumlin, speaking at a State House news conference, said the state’s child welfare system has struggled to keep pace with an influx of cases related to substance abuse, and opiate addiction in particular. The number of children in state custody has ballooned from 982 in September 2013 to 1,373 as of this past September.

The increase, according to Shumlin, is largely driven by parents addicted to opiates. A DCF survey of cases found that 80 percent of cases involving children under the age of three were the result of opiate abuse.

“We all know that Vermont continues to face real challenges with opiate addiction and that we’ve only just begun to figure out how to deal with this crisis,” Shumlin said. “The biggest victims of opiate addiction are children and we have put tremendous stress on our entire system to protect children as we struggle with more and more folks signing up for this terrible disease.”

The governor said he will seek $3.4 million in the administration’s annual mid-year budget adjustment request, and another $5 million in his 2017 fiscal year budget request for what he dubbed Phase 2 of his child protection and opiate addiction plan. The costs, he said, are already factored into a projected $40 million budget hole for the remainder of the current fiscal year and a $58.5 million projected gap for 2017.

Shumlin said he will find a way in his budget requests to pay for the additional child protection resources as he did last year when the state added 18 social workers and seven support staff, which he referred to as Phase 1.

“I will do it again. Out of a over $5 billion budget, governors have to make choices. This is a choice that I think Vermonters will support us in. So, it does mean that we’ll have to make tougher decisions in other areas of the budget,” the governor said.

The funding request covers costs associated with the proposal through the 2017 fiscal year, but the need will continue beyond then, Shumlin said.

“This is definitely, for the near-term anyway, an ongoing annual expense,” he said. “I think it would be naive of us to think that this is the last increase that we’re going to have to make. We are dealing with a full-blown crisis.”

The $8.4 million in additional spending will cover the costs of 28 social workers and seven support staff — one supervisory position and six people to recruit foster parents. It will also fund a new superior court “floater” judge that will hear cases around the state where there are high case levels.

“The addition of another judicial officer will assist us in addressing this issue,” said Chief Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson, who noted that the opiate addiction epidemic “most directly effects the juvenile docket … but it also has a ripple effect on all of our other dockets.”

In addition, there will be an expansion of workers who screen for substance abuse and help connect parents with treatment “hopefully before the crisis happens,” Shumlin said. The model, currently used in six DCF offices around the state, has been successful and will be expanded to all DCF offices next year, he said.

Meanwhile, two new public defenders will be funded as well as increased resources for private attorneys under contract with the Defender General’s office. Three full-time employees will be added for the 14 state’s attorneys around the state as well.

Defender General Matt Valerio, who said his office oversees thousands of cases involving children every year, praised the proposal.

“Our goal is to represent, legally, the interests of those people, and of course, you can’t do it if you are overwhelmed with case loads just as a social worker can’t do an adequate job if they are overwhelmed with case load,” Valerio said.

Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy also praised the proposal, saying it will help prosecutors in their efforts.

“The sad fact is is that as prosecutors … we deal with unexplained bruises, unexplained burns, unexplained burns, every day and we still are. As prosecutors wanting to do good work and wanting to protect kids, that takes a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of dedication,” she said.

Kennedy said each case involves different circumstances and prosecutors must figure out the best solution.

“Keeping one baby safe means helping moms stay engaged in substance abuse or mental health treatment. Keeping another kid safe means getting an abuser out of the house and locked up. And keeping yet another kid safe might mean taking them out of the house altogether until DCF and the other community agencies can work their magic and maybe bring that family back together,” she said.

The investment in additional social workers will have a minimal impact on the average number of cases per social worker, lowering it from 17.7 to 16. Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, called the proposal a good first step, but said the number of new social workers likely needs to be doubled.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz speaks in support of a proposal to add more social workers in an effort to better protect children. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz speaks in support of a proposal to add more social workers in an effort to better protect children. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Shumlin acknowledged the proposal does not meet the administration’s “dream” ratio of cases per social worker.

“The dream is 12,” he said.

The state’s social workers are working under difficult circumstances and have faced threats following several high-profile tragedies. Two toddlers in DCF care died in 2014, sparking outrage that more wasn’t done to protect them.

And in August, Lara Sobel, a social worker who was based at the Barre office and was gunned down in the office’s parking lot. Sobel was allegedly killed by a mother whose child was in the state’s custody.

“We continue to get many threats day in and day out on the work of these social workers, yet every day they come to work and every day they try to do the best job possible,” Agency of Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen said.

Officials say three social workers have left the state workforce because of Sobel’s murder.

“We have had some social workers in light of the tragedy … who have rethought what they’re doing here and it’s an honest, understandable reaction even for extremely dedicated and committed social workers,” DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said.

Shumlin has repeatedly blamed the opiate crisis gripping Vermont and states around the country on prescription pain killers that are dispensed too frequently and “with irrational exuberance” by doctors.

“The thing that has changed is that when we approved FDA painkillers that we pass out like candy through our health care system we suddenly had this huge spike in opiate and heroin addiction,” he said again Thursday.

He promised Phase 3 of his plan would be laid out in his State of the State Address in January and will include a plan to limit how doctors dispense prescription opiates. Shumlin said he has “spoken extensively” with Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker who is crafting a similar plan.

“We will have a number of, I hope, imaginative and good ideas ready for prime time,” the governor said. “We’re still working on our package and I would give it to you if we had it … fine-tuned, but we’ve got to attack this on all fronts.”

Shumlin, who leaves office in January 2017 after announcing in June that he would not seek a fourth term, said he will continue to focus on the issue.

“It’s our job to protect every Vermont child. While this won’t solve all of our problems, and there will be more tragedies ahead, without a doubt, this is a step in the right direction. It’s an investment we must make,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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