A new report from the Department for Children and Families shows that even as the department added staff to manage heavy caseloads, the number of reports of abuse – and the number of substantiated cases – continued to rise.
The increase was so significant, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said Wednesday, that social worker caseloads are now higher than they were before the department added 18 new social worker positions last year.
“Initially when those 18 social workers were retained, we did see our caseload drop per social worker,” Schatz said. “But then the increasing number of children coming into custody drove that back up so that now, in fact, our social workers have a higher case load than [before] when we did initially add the 18.”
The “2014 Report on Child Protection in Vermont” shows data about DCF’s growing caseload last year, including the increased reporting of neglect and abuse, the rise in substantiated abuse cases, the types of abuse and the relationships between victims and alleged perpetrators.
“The data shows that many Vermont families are struggling,” Schatz wrote in an introduction to the report. “Last year, we received a record number of child abuse and neglect reports and substance abuse was a factor in about one-third of them. Since the beginning of 2014, the number of children in DCF custody has increased by nearly 33 percent – an increase that was most startling for children under the age of six (68 percent).”
The report doesn’t address which, if any, of the changes was influenced by reforms at the department that added capacity and increased information sharing. Schatz said he doesn’t have data on how the changes affected DCF’s work, but the deaths of two young Vermonters, Dezirae Sheldon and Peyton Geraw, last year did spur change.
“I don’t have hard data, I do think we’re being more careful though,” he said. “I think that we recognized after those fatalities that we really do want to put the safety of the child at the very, very top of the list of our concerns.”
The number of reports to the state’s Child Protection Line reached a record 19,288 last year, up more than 10 percent from 17,460 in 2013. While that number isn’t necessarily indicative of increases in the number of abuse cases, it shows more Vermonters are going to DCF with concerns.
Schatz said that increase isn’t a bad thing.
“We encourage that, because in some respects it’s a good thing to encourage members of the community to identify circumstances where children may be at risk,” he said.
Of those 19,288 reports, DCF conducted 2,908 child abuse investigations and substantiated the allegations in 652 cases, meaning “the evidence would lead a reasonable person to believe the child was abused or neglected,” the report said. That’s a smaller increase than the increase in reports – just 10 more substantiated cases, or 1.5 percent above 2013 numbers.
The majority of those substantiated cases included sexual abuse (365 cases), but officials noted in the report that allegations of abuse can be substantiated in more than one category, so some cases may have involved both sexual and physical abuse for example.
In cases of sexual abuse, DCF seemed to do a better job of catching abuse before it occurred when the child was at risk of abuse from parents. Of the substantiated reports in which a parent was listed as the abuser, 105 were substantiated for “risk of sexual abuse.” There were 31 cases in which parents actually committed the alleged abuses.
The most cases of actual sexual abuse -- as opposed to a risk for sexual abuse -- took place when the abuser was a “neighbor/friend” of the victim and not a parent. There were 130 such cases compared to 31 cases where a parent was the abuser and 35 when a stepparent or the parent’s partner was the abuser.
Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators of sexual abuse were male. Of all cases of sexual abuse in 2014, 93 percent of abusers were male.
The department has options other than a full child abuse investigation after receiving a report.
In 2014, DCF launched 1,688 child abuse assessments -- in which no formal finding is made regarding the allegation -- and 1,281 family assessments which “may be used for allegations that don’t meet the legal definition of child abuse or neglect but still raise concerns about whether children are receiving proper parental care necessary for their well-being,” the report said.