New report on DCF again calls for more staff, better training

by Laura Krantz Staffers in the Department for Children and Families lack knowledge and understanding about how to work effectively with families affected by substance abuse, according to a new report released Thursday by DCF. The Casey Family Programs study is the third to come out this fall, as part of a wide response to two child deaths in February and April. All three came to similar conclusions.

The new report grouped its findings into five categories. The key items include better training, more social workers, more transparency and a stronger focus on opiate addiction’s impact on family dynamics.

DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz and his boss, Agency of Human Services interim secretary Harry Chen, presented the 18-page report and seven-page summary along with Schatz’s deputy, Cindy Walcott at a morning news conference in Williston, attended by only three reporters.

Officials are still waiting for the recommendations of a legislative committee that probed the child protection system following the deaths of Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw, but said it was reaffirming that the three reports offer similar recommendations.

“We have a good road map now to go forward,” Schatz said.

That road map includes more front-line workers, lower case loads, more training, better policies and more expertise in dealing with opiate addiction.

Chen announced that DCF will hire 10 more staffers. They include five management positions in the economic services division, two assistant attorneys general to help district offices with child protection cases and the family services division: an assistant district director in St. Albans, a assistant for the centralized call intake unit and a policy specialist.

The positions will be funded through anticipated savings from the state’s Reach Up program, which helps poor families.

Schatz said that although this will be a year of budget cuts, he hopes the legislative committee on child protection will realize the importance of making the system stronger.

“I am optimistic and hopeful that they will be able to motivate the full legislature to make some very constructive changes,” Schatz said.

Officials talked a lot about the impact of drug addiction on their job of protecting children.

The system as a whole underestimated the impact that opiates have on family dynamics, said DCF Deputy Commissioner Cindy Walcott.

Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, answers questions on the death of Winooski toddler Peighton Geraw at a news conference Thursday in Burlington. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, speaking at a July 2014 news conference. Photo by Laura Krantz/VTDigger

“We have to adjust and we have to understand when a parent’s primary driver is addiction,” she said.

To give an example, Walcott said that in the first six months of this year, 70 percent of cases involving children below the age of three involved the use of opiates in the family.

“This is a very pervasive issue that is having a dramatic impact on really the social fabric in this state,” Walcott said.

In addition, she said that between September 2013 and September 2014, DCF saw a:

  • 20 percent increase in the number of children in DCF custody
  • 37 percent increase in the number of children in DCF custody under the age of 6
  • 11 percent increase in the number of calls to the abuse/neglect
  • 20 percent increase in the number of child abuse/neglect investigations and assessments.

Vermont already had a higher than average number of children in foster care system, Walcott said.

The report’s overall recommendations are:

  1. Hire and train a significant number of additional staff to reduce caseload. In the meantime, transfer some tasks to paraprofessionals and create other strategies to work more efficiently.
  2. Increase training and guidance for social workers in the use of safety and risk assessment tools, and give workers sufficient time to conduct thorough assessments.
  3. Focus more attention on the state’s assessment track (part of a system known as differential response) in order to fulfill its potential as a safe alternative to investigation.
  4. Train DCF staff on how to work with families affected by substance abuse.
  5. Improve measurement of outcomes and reporting and publish regular summaries of Vermont-specific data.

In addition to a number of other changes, Schatz said the department will make more information available on its website.

“As a department, as an agency, we need to regain public confidence,” Schatz said.

More data

The report said that the number of children entering care has grown faster than the number of leaving care since 2011. Vermont had 7.5 children in out-of-home care per 1,000 children in fiscal year 2013 compared to the national average of 4.9 placements per 1,000.

That percentage increased to 9.1 per 1,000 in fiscal year 2014, the report found. National data for FY14 were not yet available.

The report also mentioned opiate addiction as a major factor affecting the child protection system.

Opioid-related admissions to state-funded substance abuse treatment programs more than tripled between 2004 and 2013, the report found. The rate of infants exposed to opioids per 1,000 Vermont resident hospital deliveries more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, it said.

The study began in July and involved focus groups with DCF staff and others, a review of records and Web and telephone interviews. Casey Family Programs provided it free, officials said.