Opioid Abuse Continues To Strain Vermont's Child Welfare System

Dec 5, 2017

The state's child protection line received a record number of calls last year, and officials say the opioid crisis continues to have an impact on families throughout Vermont.

The Department for Children and Families runs the 24-hour child protection line that collects reports from people who are concerned about a child's well being.

DCF reports on the calls it receives every year, and in 2016 the department received 20,583 calls from someone who asked the state to check in on a family.

Reports received include: allegations that meet the legal definition of child abuse and neglect, allegations that do not meet the legal definition but raise concern about youth engaging in risky behavior or children not receiving the proper parental care. They also include multiple calls about the same child or incident reported by different individuals.
Credit source: 2016 Report On Child Protection in Vermont, State Of Vermont, accessed Dec. 3, 2017

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz says substance abuse was a factor in almost a third of the reports the state received.

"This is an ongoing concern and it's been a consistent trend over the last few years," said Schatz. "A significant percentage of the calls we get relate to parents being involved with substance abuse."

The state gets involved with a family when there is a risk of sexual abuse, or when a child's physical health, psychological growth or welfare is at risk.

"This is an ongoing concern and it's been a consistent trend over the last few years." — Ken Schatz, DCF Commissioner

Not every single call leads to an investigation, and overall the number of kids that were placed under state care dropped slightly last year.

But Schatz says the number of families that came into the DCF support system increased, largely he says due to substance abuse issues.

The number of families involved with the Vermont Department for Children and Families according to their 2016 report.
Credit source: 2016 Report On Child Protection in Vermont, State Of Vermont, accessed Dec. 3, 2017

Read the full Vermont Department for Children and Families report.

When the state gets a call from a teacher or a neighbor, a social worker might make contact with a parent who is working through their addiction counseling.

In some cases the child remains with the parent, or moves in with a relative, but the state ends up providing services to the parent.

"A significant percentage of the calls we get relate to parents being involved with substance abuse." — Ken Schatz, DCF commissioner

In 2016, the number of families that did not lose a child to state custody, but who worked with DCF while the child lived with a family member or friend, jumped almost 16 percent.

"There have been changing trends both by the approach taken by DCF and the by the other players in the system," said Schatz. "We are trying to work more constructively with parents and with kin and with other service providers to meet the needs of the children."

The state relies on a system that has mandated reporters who are legally required to call DCF when there are concerns for child abuse.

Mandated reporters include teachers and school counselors, mental health workers, members of the legal and law enforcement communities, and doctors and nurses.

Mandated reporters accounted for at least 67 percent of the calls that were made to the Child Protection Line.

According to the report, substance abuse was a factor in 27 percent of the reports received in 2016.

Over the past five years, while Vermont's opiate problem grew, the number of calls made to the Child Protection Line increased a little more than 30 percent.

Two years ago, the Legislature approved funding that added 35 social workers across the state, but according to the latest data the caseloads remain high due to the ongoing drug epidemic.

DCF wants to get the caseloads down to 12, but social workers, on average, are still working with 16 families, according to the report.

According to the report: Substance abuse was a factor in 27 percent of the reports received, financial stress in 15 percent, domestic violence in 12 percent, mental health in 11 percent, and cognitive/physical disabilities in 3 percent.
Credit source: 2016 Report On Child Protection in Vermont, State Of Vermont, accessed Dec. 3, 2017
According to the report: The following table identifies family factors that were identified by reporters when they called the Child Protection Line. While some factors may not have been validated during ensuing interventions, this list helps us better understand the difficult challenges families face and helps supervisors and social workers plan effective intervention strategies.
Credit source: 2016 Report On Child Protection in Vermont, State Of Vermont, accessed Dec. 3, 2017

Read the full Vermont Department for Children and Families report.

"The caseload and work load for our social workers is still too high," said Schatz. "The burden on them is still substantial with respect with providing services we would like for both the parent and the child."

According to the report, there were 984 child victims of abuse in 2016.

Along with substance parents the reports says financial stress, mental health issues, and domestic violence all contribute to child abuse.

Explore the report for more information and data, as well as charts showing the breakdown of investigations and assessments by area.