'We've Got A Crisis': Lawmakers Seek To Change A Child Welfare System Strained By Opioid Epidemic

Dec 17, 2018

Lawmakers are looking for novel ways to relieve stress on a child welfare system that’s straining under the weight of Vermont’s opioid problem.

Sixty-four percent more children age 5 and under were taken into state custody in FFY 2017 than they were in FFY 2012, according to data from the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

Experts attribute much of that increase to parents suffering from substance abuse disorders, and Deputy Defender General Marshall Pahl said the influx has created a kind of self-perpetuating problem.

“The more overwhelmed the system is, the less able the system is to handle the cases that it has,” Pahl said.

Lawmakers have become increasingly attuned to the collateral effects of what Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears refers to as an “opioid crisis.”

“Those are going to be the adults of tomorrow, and it scares the hell out of me,” Sears said. “These kids are very troubled, and we’ve got a crisis, and I’m just worried about it.”

Lawmakers’ latest attempt at a solution arrived last week, in the form of a report from a workgroup that was created by the Legislature to study the problem.

Members of that group, however, say the only way to fix the state’s child welfare apparatus is to reduce the number of families engulfed by it.

“Frankly, there’s no adjustments that could be made to our system and no sort of minor tweaks to the system that could allow the system to adequately process the number of cases that are coming into it right now,” Pahl said.

That’s why Pahl and other members of the workgroup are encouraging lawmakers to focus their attention well upstream of the child welfare system itself. They say the state needs to somehow find a way to help at-risk families before it gets so bad that the state has to take custody of a child.

“Identifying high-risk, high-need individuals, getting them the services that they need to prevent them from ever entering the CHINS [Children in Need of Care and Supervision] system is the right approach,” said James Pepper, with the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

"Frankly, there's no adjustments that could be made to our system and no sort of minor tweaks to the system that could allow the system to adequately process the number of cases that are coming into it right now." — Deputy Defender General Marshall Pahl

One recommendation from the workgroup is something known as home visitation, where caseworkers in some instances begin a relationship with parents as soon as a newborn arrives.

“Pediatric home visiting should address both the opioid crisis and the increase in filings in court by catching issues sooner,” says Karen Vastine, senior advisor to the commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families. “And so this is a real opportunity for us to engage families very, very early, and that can often be the stepping stone for positive engagement through home visiting.”

The workgroup is also urging legislators to consider “alternative dispute resolution,” which would provide a new path for adjudicating alleged cases of child abuse or neglect.

Judge Brian Grearson, a member of the workgroup, said the panel plans to continue its work next year.

“We need more information to be able to decide, are the programs that are available in Vermont appropriate for what we want in Vermont, or are there others that we could adopt?” Grearson said.

Pahl said alleviating stress on the child welfare system is almost certainly going to require a fundamentally new approach from policymakers.

“It’s not something ... where there’s a lot of models to work off of, so we really are kind of forging ahead into some unknown territory — which is what we need to do to address this problem,” Pahl said.

Lawmakers say they’re prepared to invest new resources in whatever approach they end up pursuing. The Legislature last year approved nearly $4 million in new spending on child welfare initiatives. They’ll decide during the next legislative session how they’re going to spend it.