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DCF Underestimated Impacts Of Opiates On Child Safety In Vermont

Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families Ken Schatz, in between two others
Taylor Dobbs
VPR file
From left, acting Secretary of Human Services Harry Chen, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz and deputy DCF commissioner Cindy Walcott at a news conference discussing a new report on DCF.

A new report on the Department for Children and Families sheds light on the major difficulties the department has faced in handling the opiate crisis Gov. Peter Shumlin brought to the fore in January.

The report suggests, and officials confirm, that DCF was caught off-guard by just how much opiate abuse and addiction would affect the department's work.

Deputy DCF commissioner Cindy Walcott doesn't dance around it: The agency wasn't ready for the dramatic impact drugs would have on child safety work.

"From my opinion, we began to address the treatment issues fairly early-on," she said. "But really understanding the complicated impact on family dynamics and child safety that are caused by opiate use, I think we did underestimate it."

"Really understanding the complicated impact on family dynamics and child safety that are caused by opiate use, I think we did underestimate it." - Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of Department for Children and Families

The new report from the Casey Family Programs says DCF has a lot of work to do in its substance abuse work, including treatment.

The report said DCF needs to do more to get parents with mental health and substance abuse into treatment in their communities.

"DCF should partner with service provider organizations and community health centers to increase treatment slots if necessary, and to prioritize access to mental health and substance abuse assessment and treatment for parents referred for child protection," the report says.

As for the family dynamics and other drug-related issues the department is facing, the Casey Programs report says DCF needs more caseworkers with better training and less job turnover.

"Research indicates that excessive caseloads and high rates of turnover in these [caseworker] positions can negatively affect safety and permanency outcomes for children referred for child protection," the report said.

Training caseworkers to deal with drug problems in families is another key recommendation in the report. DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz says the department is already working on this through a partnership with the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare.

"We will over the next three months specifically be developing a drug testing protocol. We will review intake policies for substance abuse, and adjust safety planning practices to reflect updated knowledge about the impact of substance abuse on child safety," he said.

The report said the safety plans for Vermont families involved with DCF "are often inadequate, sometimes relying primarily on parental promises to do or not do something differently in the future," and often don't include steps to protect children whose parents are at risk to relapse into active drug addiction.

Officials are focusing on improving protocols, but perhaps the most widely agreed upon problem at DCF is staffing levels. By all accounts, the state's caseworkers are still overburdened. And the co-chair of the Vermont Citizens Advisory Board said recently that 40 new social workers are needed to bring down those caseloads to acceptable national standards.

But in an interview with VPR's Vermont Edition Thursday, Schatz wasn't willing to commit to seeking the funding required for the 40 new caseworker positions - saying only that he would push for increased funding for new caseworkers.

"One of the things that will be part of the legislative process is looking at these reports and determining what the appropriate level of funding and how many new social workers we can add to complement," he said. "We will clearly indicate, consistent with these reports, that we need more resources and we need more social workers. What the proposal will be at this point, I don't know."

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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