The number of children taken into state custody has jumped by 40 percent over the past two years. The increase has overwhelmed the child-welfare system, and the Shumlin administration is now calling for substantial new investments in state and county personnel.
The $8.4 million plan, announced Thursday, will fund the hiring of more than 40 workers across the child-welfare system. The proposal calls for 35 new staff members at the Department for Children and Families, three deputy state’s attorneys to handle child-welfare cases, and the hiring of another judge to hear them.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy has become all too accustomed to meeting kids with unexplained bruises, burns and broken bones.
“I work frequently with kids who are victims of crime. And I like saying to them, ‘My name is Rose and my job is to help protect you.’”
Kennedy says it’s a promise she’s struggled to keep.
“The reality is, for those words to have any meaning, we need to have initiatives like this,” Kennedy says.
The plan will also create two new jobs in the public defender’s office.
“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,” Shumlin says. “It’s an investment we must make.”
State officials say opiate abuse accounts for the lion’s share of the increase in children being removed from their homes. Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen says some of the new investments will allow for substance-abuse screeners to accompany caseworkers to the homes of suspected addicts.
Cohen says the practice allows the state not only to better identify potentially dangerous domestic environment, but also to connect addicted parents to the treatment and services they’ll need to adequately care for their children.
Screeners already accompany caseworkers to homes in six of the state’s 12 child-protection districts; the new money will allow the agency to take the initiative statewide.
“We are very hopeful that, by adding social workers, by adding substance-abuse specialists, that we are going to be able to do a better job protecting our children, and also giving social workers the ability to do the kind of work that they need to do,” Cohen says.
The addition of 35 staff members at the Department for Children and Families will include 28 caseworkers. The new hires will bring caseloads from 17.7 families per caseworker down to 16 families per person. It’s still well above the 12 family-per-caseworker ideal, but Commissioner of Children and Families Ken Schatz says the investment will go a long way toward reducing pressure on overwhelmed staff.
“There’s no sense in adding social workers if we can’t get them adjudicated and in the right places,” Shumlin says.
DCF will also hire six administrative workers whose jobs will include recruiting foster parents for the children flowing into state custody.
Shumlin says finding foster parents to care for the influx of very young children into state custody has been a problem.
“So anyone out there who’s willing to be a stable influence to these wonderful and vulnerable kids, we need you,” Shumlin said at a press conference announcing the plan.
The announcement comes as the state grapples with a significant budget shortfall. Shumlin says he’ll pay for the proposal by making cuts elsewhere in state government.