The number of child abuse and neglect cases reached a new statewide high in the last fiscal year, according to statistics released last week from Vermont's court system. But the most startling increase was in Franklin County.
The number of child abuse or neglect petitions filed in court in Franklin County jumped from 93 in fiscal year 2017 to 166 in 2018.
In all, the state filed 1,096 petitions alleging that parents or guardians had neglected or abused their children in 2018. The total has steadily trended upward for years — 2018's count is a 60 percent increase from 2012, and the highest number in recent years.
Chittenden County had the highest number of child abuse and neglect cases in the state, with 219 initiated in fiscal 2018. Franklin County, which has a population a third of its neighbor to the south, ranked second. (Bennington County rose slightly, from 80 cases to 81.)
It's unclear why Franklin County's numbers are so high, but the northwestern region has struggled with particularly high caseloads in the child protection system for years. Lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee, which is reviewing how the state adjudicates cases where children are taken from parents, said they would take a closer look.
"We have all sorts of anecdotal information. We don't have any causal data about why there appears to be a disproportionate number, for their size, of court cases," the committee's chair, Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said.
Well over half of cases in which children age five or younger are in state custody involve substance abuse problems. Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson, who presented court case data to lawmakers on the committee last week, speculated the state's drug problem could be partly to blame.
"Franklin has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic. There's no question about that," Grearson said.
An opiate treatment hub opened in St. Albans last year.
Alix Gibson, the St. Albans District Director for DCF's Family Services Division, said needs in Franklin County have been acute for some time.
"We're like a rural area but with urban issues," she said. "And we don't have the resources."
The opioid epidemic plays a role, she said, but staff have also noticed an uptick in crack and cocaine abuse. And while drug treatment waitlists have been in many cases eliminated, transportation hurdles often get in the way of parents getting access to the necessary treatment. Meanwhile, a lack of safe and affordable housing also contributes to family instability, she added.
DCF put out a call out earlier this summer for additional foster homes in Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Gibson said the shortage is chronic in Franklin, but getting more severe as children enter the system with increasingly pronounced and complicated traumas.
"The needs of the kids have become so great that in some ways it takes different types of people to foster them," she said.