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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Despite Funding Surge, DCF Falling Short Of Federal Standards

Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz has overseen the department's efforts to improve after its work came into question last year.

The Department for Children and Families is failing to meet three key federal guidelines for how it handles cases of at-risk children in the state, according to the top official in charge of the department’s family services branch.

Audio for this story will be posted at approximately 11 a.m. on Thursday, March 12.

Cindy Walcott is deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and heads up the division that works on issues of child abuse and neglect, among other areas.

She says the department is meeting a number of significant federal standards, but falls short of others. Some of those standards are based on how long it takes the state to get a child in a permanent situation. In official parlance, that’s known as “achieving permanency.”

“The national standard for achievement of permanency within 12 months is about 40 percent,” Walcott said. “So right now, Vermont is actually not meeting that standard. We’re between 34 and 35 percent.”

In other words, between 65 and 66 percent of children that come under DCF supervision do not end up in a permanent situation within one year.

The department acknowledges that even when kids do end up in permanent situations, problems persist there also.

“The two other areas where we are not meeting the standards are number one, reentry to foster care in 12 months – so that would be if a child has achieved permanency … the extent to which they return to DCF custody and out-of-home care within the next 12 months,” Walcott said. These situations indicate "permanency" might not be so permanent. 

“And then the other area that we are not meeting the standard is placement stability for children in our care,” Walcott said.

Placement stability is made up of a number of different indicators, Walcott said. “But the simple way to think about it is that children are moving more than they should be in foster care,” she said.

"The simple way to think about it is that children are moving more than they should be in foster care." - Cindy Walcott, DCF Deputy Commissioner

The federal government is scheduled to conduct a routine review of the state DCF’s work in June, and Walcott said she expects that review will end with a two-year deadline for the state to come into compliance with new goals for improvement.

If the state fails to meet those goals, DCF could lose some federal funding for each goal unmet.

But DCF isn’t the only part of state government that affects the timeline of child protection cases. With many of the state’s actions with regard to child protection, the courts need to be involved. The state court system, too, is having trouble keeping up with the rising number of juvenile cases.

"The problem that we're facing is that even though we've put so many more resources there, the caseloads are remaining the same based on the number of children that are coming into the system." - Rep. Mitzi Johnson

That’s not expected to slow down. In fiscal year 2014, the courts saw 800 abuse and neglect cases – a major increase over the 491 cases in fiscal year 2009. In the current fiscal year (2015), the court is projected to see 1,050 cases abuse and neglect cases, according to documents from court administration.

Both DCF and the judiciary system say either caseloads need to decline or they need more resources if they hope to cut down on backlogs. But with budget problems in Montpelier it’s unclear how much money either will get.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee responsible for funding the various parts of state government, said midyear adjustments to the current budget allowed DCF to hire new case workers. But even that hasn’t added up to enough.

“The problem that we’re facing is that even though we’ve put so many more resources there, the caseloads are remaining the same based on the number of children that are coming into the system,” she said.

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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