'Did It Work?': Hiring More DCF Social Workers To Reduce Caseloads

May 16, 2019

In 2015, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a plan to invest millions of dollars in Vermont's child-protection system. One of the main goals was to reduce caseloads for social workers in the Department for Children and Families. Now, nearly three years later, are caseloads any lower?

VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.

The Initiative

In 2014, two infants under the watch of the Vermont Department for Children and Families died. The deaths put DCF under a microscope, revealing a system that was understaffed and overwhelmed with cases.

The Vermont Citizen's Advisory Board recommended a number of changes. Joe Hagan, a pediatrician in Burlington and co-chair of VCAB at the time, said one of the main findings was that DCF was understaffed.

Hagan said the advisory board found that DCF social workers had significantly higher caseloads than the nationally recommended 12 cases per worker.

“The [Vermont DCF] average, if I recall correctly, was somewhere around 17 or 18 cases,” Hagan said in a recent interview. “So we right away called that to the attention of the governor.”

In December 2015, Shumlin announced a plan to invest millions of dollars in Vermont's child-protection system.

“While this won’t solve all of our problems, and there will be more tragedies ahead, without a doubt this is a step in the right direction,” Shumlin said during a press conference. “It’s an investment we must make.”

In 2015, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced a plan to invest $8.4 million in the state's child-protection system. A major part of the plan was to hire more Department for Children and Families social workers.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR File

The $8.4-million plan called for hiring more than 40 workers across the child-protection system — including 28 new DCF caseworkers. Shortly after the plan was announced, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz told Vermont Edition the resources were necessary.

“We've definitely seen the substantial increase in terms of reports of abuse and neglect increasing substantially, our numbers of children coming into custody has increased substantially,” Schatz said. “We clearly recognize the need for more resources for our social worker staff.”

By increasing staff, DCF hoped to bring caseloads down from nearly 18 per worker to 16. The Legislature signed off on the plan.

What Happened

Not all of the $8.4 million approved went to the Department for Children and Families, but most of the money it did receive went toward hiring social workers. The department ultimately added 20 family service workers, in hopes of reducing caseloads.

But while the supply of caseworkers increased, the demand for their services has increased even more. DCF says the number of child-protection cases has risen by 33% since 2013.

Department for Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Karen Shea said the department is seeing more cases, which makes it hard to keep caseloads down.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Karen Shea, DCF's deputy commissioner, said the totals are a combination of three things: how many cases come in, how long cases are in the system and how many leave.

“All three parts are not working perfectly,” Shea said. “So you have more cases coming into the system than you did five years ago. You have longer lengths of stay because you have delays in the court process because you have more cases going into that flow. And you have fewer who exit as a result of, you know, the delays in the systems.”

Shea said opioid abuse is a factor in the increase.

“Roughly two-thirds of our caseload have substance use disorders as a factor in the child custody episode,” Shea said. “And about 50 percent of cases, it’s opiate use disorder for children under age five.”

But Larry Crist, the executive director of Vermont Parent Representation Center, thinks high caseloads are the result of DCF being too aggressive in opening investigations.

"We are assigning these workers to work they shouldn't be engaged in," Crist said.

Vermont Parent Representation Center is a nonprofit that provides legal advocacy for people involved in the state child-protection system. Crist contends DCF opens too many cases where abuse or neglect is a concern, but isn’t actually happening.

Larry Crist, executive director of Vermont Parent Representation Center, thinks the high caseloads are the result of the Department for Children and Families being too aggressive in opening cases.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

“We should be using our resources to focus on determining which families are really where kids are really at danger … instead of saying we’re just going to open cases and monitor families to make sure that nothing ever happens on our watch,” Crist said.

DCF Deputy Commissioner Shea understands the criticism, but said state law is clear about when the department needs to respond.

“I think that there's an intention around that to try to get involved at a point where we can intervene before harm occurs,” Shea said.

Did It Work?

With additional social workers, but also increased demand for services, at this time DCF caseloads are slightly down — around 17 per social worker — but still above the department's goal set back in 2015.

However, advocates and officials don’t see the outcome as a failure.

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, a member of the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee, thinks the money was well spent.

“Without those increases we’d be in real trouble today,” Sears said. “I mean it’s not to suggest that everything’s fine ... and we continue to improve, but I would hate to have seen us trying to deal with this crisis if we hadn’t had the increases in the numbers a few years ago.”

At this point, the story has come full circle — officials say the social workers are still overburdened and understaffed, and this year Gov. Phil Scott proposed a $2 million initiative that includes hiring more family service workers. The goal now is to reduce cases down to 15 per worker.

Credit Meg Malone / VPR

While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of taxpayer money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.