MONTPELIER >> For months, lawmakers have monitored charts showing the increase in children in state custody. Now, they're seeing the impact on the state budget.
The number of children in state custody has risen dramatically in recent years, from 982 two years ago to 1,370 this year — an increase of 40 percent.
In order to pay for the influx, the Department for Children and Families will need an additional $6.7 million in combined state and federal funding for the current fiscal year, according to the Shumlin administration.
In the budget adjustment request, the Shumlin administration is asking lawmakers to increase the contribution from the state's General Fund by $1.9 million to support the additional needs of the children in custody. The remainder will come from federal and Medicaid funds.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee heard from DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz Tuesday, who linked the increase in child protective action with the opiate epidemic.
"It does seem pretty clear that opiate addiction is what's driving this recent increase," Schatz said.
Sixteen requests for increases in the budget adjustment would go "to meet the day to day needs" of children in state custody, Schatz said.
The department is asking lawmakers to increase the appropriation to cover the cost of having 1,400 children in custody, versus the original appropriation for 1,096 children.
However, Schatz said, the average cost per case has gone down as more toddlers and babies have come into state custody, dropping to $22,662 from $25,674. Young children tend to have fewer costs than adolescents, who may have more complex needs, he said.
The administration is also asking to increase funds to pay for respite and other supports for foster families. The department is asking for $205,592, largely from the general fund, which would go to funding childcare or other assistance for foster parents.
There has also been increased pressure on the budget for transportation of children in state custody. The administration is asking for nearly $1.1 million to fund the increased cost of transportation relating to a 33 percent caseload increase. About one third of that sum would be funded with federal dollars.
Part of the money in the budget adjustment request would go to hiring 35 new employees, including 28 social workers, in the family services division as part of an effort to ease caseloads.
Social workers in Vermont currently carry an average caseload of 17.7 families each. The governor's proposal would lower the caseload to approximately 16 per social worker. Schatz noted that the increase in social workers would not keep pace with the increase in children in custody.
"It's a substantial step forward, but the percentage increase does not equal the increase in our caseload," Schatz said. The department has a goal to get to an average caseload of 15 families per social worker, he said.
The administration is asking the Legislature to approve funds for the additional family services division positions to begin during fiscal year 2016, beginning in April or May.
Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, referenced the shooting of social worker Lara Sobel and three others in central Vermont in August, noting that it took place in her home district.
The impact, she said, was profound. "It wasn't just in DCF, but it spread out to the entire community," Hooper said.
Hooper questioned Schatz about what is being done to address the underlying trends that are leading to the increase in children in state custody.
Schatz said he believes that the trend is driven by opiate addiction, and said that the issues goes "well beyond DCF." He emphasized treatment, as well as law enforcement, as critical parts of the state response.
"It's a community wide issue that we need to continue talking about," Schatz said.