Child Abuse And Neglect Cases Strain Courts, Foster System

Mar 10, 2015

Vermont’s continuing problem with opiate addiction has led to a rise in the number of children in state care, officials say. The recent surge is driven largely by children under six years old, a trend that has officials scrambling to find foster families to meet the needs of younger children.

According to Cindy Walcott, the deputy commissioner at the Department for Children and Families who heads up the Family Services Division, there were 1,045 minors in state custody on June 30, 2014.

Last Friday, March 6, 2015, the state had 1,251 minors under its care. The 20 percent increase is due in large part to opiate problems, Walcott said.

“In 2014 we experienced a substantial increase in the number of calls to our child protection hotline, a substantial increase in the number of child abuse investigations and assessments that we do, and that has also resulted in a pretty startling increase in the number of children that have come into state custody,” Walcott said.

The increases from last June to March 6 were significant not just for the rise in the total number of children in state custody. The majority of the children that make up the increase between June and March are under six years old.

“That went from 336 on June 30 to 511 on March 6,” she said. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent in the number of young children in state care. The number of children from 12 to 17 years old in custody actually fell over the same period, from 481 to 437.

“Right now we have about 85 children in our custody who came in when they were less than one month old,” Walcott said.

"Right now we have about 85 children in our custody who came in when they were less than one month old." - Cindy Walcott, DCF

The high overall numbers of children in state custody paired with the surge in preschool-aged children has put a strain on the state’s roughly 1,000 foster families, Walcott said.

“To try to find a foster family where there’s a parent in the home that can care for a very young child, it’s just not that easy to do,” Walcott said, “because most of our families have two parents that are working.”

Vermont’s foster families aren’t the only ones feeling a strain as a result of the rising number of abuse and neglect cases in Vermont. The state’s court system is also struggling.

The total number of cases involving children in need – known as Child in Need of Care or Supervision, or CHINS – has risen dramatically in recent years.

A recent report showed the number of cases involving children in Vermont courts has risen steadily in recent years.
Credit Vermont Judicial Report

“The increase in CHINS filings over the past few years has been fueled primarily by a dramatic growth in abuse/neglect cases,” according to the Fiscal Year 2014 statistics report from the Vermont Judiciary Branch. “The number of abuse/neglect filings increased by 62 percent between FY10 and FY15.”

The state’s chief public defender and top court administrators say they are struggling to keep up with the increases.

“Not only are many of the children involved in these cases removed from the custody of their parents, there is always the threat of termination of parental rights if parents are unable to regain custody within a reasonable amount of time,” according to a document outlining “Key Budget and Programmatic Issues” for the branch.

"The number of abuse neglect filings increased by 62 percent between FY10 and FY15." - Vermont Judicial Branch Report

“Five years of clearance rates below 100 percent is a source of significant concern,” it says. “It means the development of a backlog of cases that will be difficult to overcome without a dramatic decline in the number of filings or an increase in resources.”

Clearance rate refers to the number of cases completed compared to the number of incoming cases.

Matthew Valerio is Vermont’s defender general and oversees all publicly appointed attorneys in Vermont courts. He says his office is especially involved with abuse and neglect cases.

“Fundamentally we represent everybody,” he says. “We have attorneys who represent the children, we have attorneys who represent the parents. So when they come into the legal side of things as opposed to some response by DCF that doesn’t involve the legal system, we end up getting those cases 99-plus percent of the time.”

Defense attorneys, too, are struggling to keep up with the caseload.

Valerio says federal law “requires certain timelines ... in a case and at various stages along the way. Frankly I don’t always agree with those timelines as being realistic, but if you use those as the basis, yes, that’s an issue.”

According to data released by Valerio, nine of Vermont’s 14 counties experienced an increase in juvenile cases from the first half of fiscal year 2014 to the first half of fiscal year 2015. Windsor County’s caseload nearly doubled, while both Chittenden and Franklin County cases rose significantly.

None of the five counties that saw decreases in juvenile cases had changes as dramatic; total caseloads across the state has gone up.

“In various counties, we have seen a significant increase such that it’s causing problems with our contractors and staff attorneys to be able to keep up,” Valerio says. “That’s absolutely clear.”