MONTPELIER, VT. >> Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday called for the state to hire 35 new social workers and support personnel and create a position for a new judge to help Vermont's child protection system cope with rising caseloads he said have been driven by opiate addiction.
"The effect that the opiate crisis is having on Vermont's children is heartbreaking," Shumlin said at a news conference in which he was flanked by senior officials from the state's human services and court systems.
Shumlin said the number of children in state custody increased by 40 percent in the past two years, to 1,373 as of September. "Of particular significance," said a statement from the governor's office, "this increase is most substantial for young children and is primarily driven by parental opiate addiction."
The statement cited a survey by the state Department for Children and Families that found that "opiate use was a factor in 80 percent of cases where a child under the age of 3 was brought into custody."
A report DCF issued in June pointed to families' "financial stress" as a faster-growing cause of family problems cited by those calling the state's child protection line. Those cases nearly tripled, from 6 percent of reports to the line in 2010 to 17 percent in 2014, the report said. Reports of substance abuse also grew, but at a slower pace, climbing from 27 percent of cases to 31 percent during the same period.
Shumlin said he had seen no evidence of a significant increase in poverty in Vermont during the past five years, while addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers had risen significantly.
Shumlin said the state will devote $8.4 million during the current and next fiscal year to hiring additional staff. He said the hires will not add to the much discussed budget gap, in which needs are outpacing revenues by about $40 million for the current fiscal year and an estimated $58.5 million for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. The governor said that's because the new hires have already been accounted for.
Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said new social workers will be brought on mainly next spring and summer.
In all, the state plans to hire 28 social workers, one supervisor and six other staff in DCF; a new "floater" judge who will travel between counties with the hope of alleviating caseloads in the family courts; three new staff for state's attorney's offices and two staff, plus additional private legal help for public defenders' offices.