MONTPELIER >> Gov. Peter Shumlin has unveiled a $8.4 million proposal to address the exponential growth of children entering state custody.
The upward trend, officials say, is largely driven by the state's opiate crisis.
"Parents under the influence of opiates will do horrid, horrid things to the kids that they love and they should be caring for," Shumlin said. "So we have to do better. Our social workers are doing heroic work. They need more help."
As of September, there were 1,373 children in DCF custody — an increase of nearly 400 over two years.
"The number of children that we are taking into custody, that means kids who are no longer with their parents, has increased 40 percent in the last two years," Shumlin said. "You also have to remember that in 80 percent of those cases, opiate addiction is at the root of these heartbreaking circumstances."
Under the governor's plan, the Department for Children and Families would hire 35 staffers, including 28 new social workers. Six of the DCF staffers would focus on recruiting foster parents, he said. Shumlin also wants to add two public defenders, three state's attorneys and a superior court judge to the state's judicial system to expedite child abuse and neglect cases.
Last year, DCF hired 18 social workers to address the growing number of children in the DCF system.
The proposal increases the number of substance abuse screeners who would help connect parents with opiate treatment. Six of 12 DCF district offices offer screeners; the governor wants to expand the services statewide.
The state has an average caseload of 17.7 families per social worker. The additional employees would reduce that ratio to 16 families per social worker by spring.
"The dream is 12" families per worker, the governor said.
Matthew Valerio, the state's defender general, said the proposed bump in resources to the justice system was also desperately needed, noting 10 percent of the 22,000 cases that go through state courts each year relate to juvenile law and family issues.
"Our goal is to represent, legally, the interests of those people, and of course you can't do it if you are overwhelmed with caseload," Valerio said.
Shumlin said the $8.4 million proposal will be split between fiscal years 2016 and 2017; he has requested $3.4 million in the 2016 budget adjustment and an additional $5 million in 2017. The plan represents an ongoing increase in state spending, as officials estimate DCF will need the employees for the foreseeable future.
Shumlin said the spending was "baked into the proposals" presented to legislators Tuesday during a budget preview at the Statehouse.
This year's state spending is running $40 million over projections, and a $58.5 million gap is expected in fiscal year 2017. Shumlin said he was confident lawmakers from both parties would see the need for the increased spending, and support his proposal.
A number of social workers have voiced frustration to legislators over growing caseloads, as well threats against social workers highlighted following the murder of veteran social worker Lara Sobel in August.
"We continue to get many threats, day in and day out, on the work of these social workers," said Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen. "Yet every day they come to work, and every day they try to do the best job possible. "
While DCF officials have acknowledged that three social workers left the agency for reasons related to Sobel's death, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said he was confident the agency could hire the additional staff by the spring if the governor's plan is passed.
"We have been able to successfully recruit for new social workers in various places around the state," Schatz said. "So we are optimistic that we would be able to recruit to fill these positions, if approved."
Shannon Morton, a veteran DCF social worker who testified last month on the high caseloads and risks of the job, praised Shumlin's proposal Thursday in an email.
"It is wonderful to see that the governor has seen that to increase the efficacy and positive impact of child protection that we are not the only players," Morton said, applauding the proposed support of multiple state agencies. "We absolutely need and will utilize the positions that have been allotted to us, and no doubt benefit from the increased resources elsewhere."
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, hailed Shumlin's proposal as "a step in the right direction."
But Howard also outlined a number of other needed fixes to DCF, which he said would improve recruitment of social workers. They included additional Vermont State Police resources for employees, as well as further steps to reduce caseloads.
"The folks in these positions don't do it for the money," Howard said. "But working conditions and safety and security are big factors for them."
Howard said he imagined legislators would support Shumlin's request for more funding, but said there would likely still be some lobbying.
"I don't assume this won't require our social workers going to talk to their legislators one-on-one," he said.