MONTPELIER — The number of Vermont children in state custody rose sharply in 2014 to record numbers as families struggled with a slow economy and the scourge of substance abuse, according to the Department for Children and Families’ annual child protection report.
The annual report, released Tuesday, found there are currently 1,326 children in DCF custody. That’s a 33 percent increase since the beginning of 2014. DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said the increase is “particularly striking” for children under six, which saw an increase of 68 percent.
“Why is this happening? We continue to believe that substance abuse is the primary factor resulting in these increased number of reports and the increased number of children coming into state custody,” Schatz told reporters Wednesday.
Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz.
The state’s entire child protection system has been strained because of the increase in reports and higher number of children in state custody. He said it has had an impact on family courts, law enforcement, public defenders, foster parents and DCF staff.
The report revealed some staggering statistics:
— Reports to the Child Protection Line were up 10.5 percent to a record 19,288 calls
— DCF accepted 5,846 reports, or 30 percent, for intervention, resulting in 2,908 child abuse investigations, 1,688 child abuse assessments and 1,281 family assessments
— DCF substantiated 652 abuse reports with 992 unique child victims and 906 incidents of abuse
— The substantiated incidents included 145 of physical abuse, 365 of sexual abuse, 128 of risk of sexual abuse, 242 of risk of harm and 26 of emotional abuse/neglect.
— About 73 percent of the calls were made by mandated reporters, 19 percent were made by non‐mandated reporters and 8 percent were made anonymously
— Substance abuse was a factor in 31 percent of the reports received, while financial stress showed up in 17 percent of reports, domestic violence in 15 percent and mental health in 12 percent
The annual child protection report follows several investigations into DCF following the deaths last year of two toddlers who had been under the department’s care. Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, died in February 2014, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, died a short time later in April. Criminal charges have been filed against family members in both cases.
Those deaths sparked outrage from the public as well as lawmakers, who formed a special committee to review the state’s child protection laws. There was also an internal investigation as well as an independent review.
As a result, the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin hired 18 more social workers to address high case loads per worker. But state officials said Wednesday that the increase in abuse reports and children in custody have now driven case loads even higher than before the additional workers were sought.
“They are higher than they were immediately before we added the 18 social workers,” Deputy Commissioner of Family Services Cindy Walcott said.
Those social workers continue to face challenging cases, Schatz said.
“The challenge that they face on a daily basis cannot be overstated,” he said. “It is oftentimes very complicated situations, so, I have to tell you, I really admire the folks who do this on a daily basis.”
Meanwhile, Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address in January 2014 to combating heroin and opiate abuse, pledging to help Vermonters deal with the disease of addiction. Since then, the governor’s office noted Wednesday, the state has increased the number of people in treatment programs by 1,000.
The state has expanded treatment options, including the opening of West Ridge treatment center in Rutland, which is treating more than 300 patients. Shumlin’s office also noted the state has increased overall spending on drug treatment by 16 percent, despite ongoing budget challenges.
But substance abuse, particularly heroin and other opiates, continues to drive abuse rates, according to Schatz. The number of abuse reports in which substance abuse was a factor grew by about 800 cases in 2014, and represented 31 percent of all reports.
“What we see… is that our annual report does indicate that Vermont families are struggling, with substance abuse issues being a major concern,” he said. “We’re working hard to address those issues, but they do present substantial challenges.”
Schatz said the state’s enhanced drug treatment system has taken time to implement and he believes it will help lower abuse rates in the long term.
“The increased capacity will take some time to actually have its impact … in terms of parental safety behavior. Obviously I would love for there to be an immediate impact,” he said. “I am hopefully that those new interventions will be successful and we will see a change in this trend going forward.”
Shumlin recently signed in to law an overhaul of the state’s child protection laws, which stemmed from the special legislative panel that took testimony last summer and fall. The law aims to improve communication between those involved in child protection cases and directs the state to focus on the best interests of children, rather than on unification with their parents.
Despite an intense focus on child protection in the last year, Schatz said he could not definitely say if Vermont’s children are safer.
“I don’t have any data to answer that one way or the other. I don’t have any indication that children are less safe,” he said.
Read the report below: