ST. ALBANS — Driving around the main routes, through the little neighborhoods, along the picturesque vistas and on the wooded dirt paths in Franklin County, there’s no telling what may be happening on the inside of those homes lining the road.
Each day, Department for Children and Families (DCF) case workers find out, entering a number of those houses to check on child welfare. What DCF is discovering more and more, according to St. Albans District director Alix Gibson, is that there are increasing numbers of children living in households with substance abuse.
“Every month, we have a higher percentage of kids in care,” said Gibson in a recent interview. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of investigations and assessments rose from 453 to 700. Average casework loads – even with five new staff members, making for 17 social workers – increased from 17 families per person to 22 each.
“Even with kids being reunited, adopted, turning 18 and leaving care,” said Gibson. ‘The bend just isn’t curving.”
She added, “There’s a large percentage of these families that are struggling with addiction.” Of the 273 families DCF was serving in the St. Albans District at the beginning of June, 200 were dealing with substance abuse and more specifically, 140 of those families were experiencing opiate addiction.
These facts have changed the scope of DCF’s work. While knocking at the door of a stranger’s house and suggesting their children may be removed always has an element of risk, substance abuse, said Gibson, poses unpredictable – and often unsafe – situations for case workers and children.
“It’s really dangerous,” said Gibson.
On front lines
Caseworkers like Skyler Bryan and Melanie Hall can attest to Gibson’s words.
Bryan, 28, has been with the DCF St. Albans district for almost five years and works with families who have been investigated and assessed, but still have children in the home.
“The kinds of cases that I have are full of a lot of risk because there’s no court involvement,” Bryan said in a recent interview. She added, “Out of my 24 cases that aren’t court-involved, 18 of them involve substance abuse.”
Bryan said she does her best to see each family every other week, though it would be ideal to do weekly visits. She said she mostly focuses on families members getting treatment for their addiction and the child’s development, and in the meantime, coming up with a plan for the child that promotes his or her wellbeing.
“We’re working with a lot of extended family on these [addiction] cases to maintain safety for the kids,” said Bryan.
When Bryan goes out to visit a home, she determines whether a family is going through with treatment – usually by asking in-depth, detailed questions – and looks around for signs of illicit using. “We’re asking to check people’s arms, we’re asking to check people’s feet,” she said.
Some visits go well and consist of honest, transparent conversation – others do not.
“People who are struggling with addiction don’t like to engage in that conversation at all,” said Bryan. “It’s not an easy process.”
It also pushes the boundaries of personal safety.
The day before she spoke with the Messenger, Bryan said she went for a home visit and decided not to go inside because of what she saw. “There were about five cars at this trailer and I hadn’t met this mom,” she said. Bryan decided to go back another day with a second caseworker as back up.
Melanie Hall, a 29-year-old social worker in the child protection unit of the St. Albans District of DCF for the past three years, said in a recent interview she’s experienced similar situations with groups of strangers showing up during home visits.
“The people being in and out of the home – and not knowing who they are – is a huge concern,” said Hall. On one court-mandated visit, Hall and a co-worker were inside a house when it started to fill up. “I was having a conversation with one of the parents and [my co-worker] noticed a lot of people were in the house and blocking the exit. It was time to go.”
Bryan said she has been physically assaulted by a teenager and verbally intimidated, and also has experienced situations in which she felt the atmosphere was too charged to stay.
“I’ve done some home visits that were pretty uncomfortable,” said Bryan. “People get very worked up about their children,” which, she added, was understandable.
Despite these situations – which are often in rural areas without cell-service – Bryan and Hall said they have to balance safety with their mission as caseworkers: to ensure the safety of the children.
“We need to get out to see people,” said Hall.
“We have a job to do,” said Bryan. “The last thing in the world we want is something bad to happen to a child.”
There are a few, minimal security measures in place for caseworkers. In the St. Albans DCF office, a whiteboard sits next to the door where they sign in and out – using fairly vague terms like, “Swanton home visit.” Law enforcement is available for caseworkers, though such aid is usually reserved for when a child is removed from the home. Most commonly, caseworkers go to difficult visits in pairs.
Bryan said she usually checks a family’s past criminal history before going to a home and positions herself closest to the door, but there isn’t much else she has with her. She added that she wouldn’t mind having some pepper spray or learning self-defense, just in case.
“We go in naked, we go in blind,” said Bryan.
One Department of Corrections parole officer told Bryan that she and her fellow caseworkers – a majority of which are younger women – are working with the same population at DOC, without the protection.
“He said, ‘You are the most unprotected department in all of the State of Vermont,’” said Bryan.
Holding up her iPhone and pencil, Bryan said, “This is what I have to protect me.”
Caseworkers don’t have guns, walkie-talkies or tons of back up when on home visits, but they do have Hope Love of Lund, a 125-year-old statewide organization providing adoption and family support services as well as residential and outpatient treatment.
Love, who began working with the St. Albans District of DCF in November 2013 as part of the Vermont Regional Partnership Program grant, is a substance abuse screener. She’s a certified alcohol and drug counselor and has been in the field for 10 years.
“I work with the intake unit,” said Love in a recent interview. “If there’s any indication of alcohol or drug use… I screen the individual to determine if there’s the potential for a problem.”
Love will accompany caseworkers on their first home visit to houses with potential (or definite) substance abuse, will assess the case, and then will work with families to receive addiction treatment.
“It’s really about helping someone get into treatment as quickly as possible,” said Love. She helps inform case plans, answers questions about things such as urinalysis results, does DCF staff trainings and consults with community partners.
“I’m just really available for anyone who needs me,” said Love.
According to Gibson, having Love in the office has changed the entire approach DCF takes to cases involving substance abuse.
“She has opened our eyes to the world of substance abuse that we previously didn’t know,” said Gibson. Not only has she trained caseworkers to recognize paraphernalia and physical signs of illicit drug use, but Love also has made DCF more aware of the dangers children face in homes where addiction is present.
Most common is the neglect that children face with parents devoting focus and funds toward their next high. Children can also get hurt or ill by playing with paraphernalia or ingesting drugs.
During an unannounced home visit in May, for example, Love said she and a caseworker found 30 to 50 needles, caps, and plungers in an entertainment stand, which the young child could easily access.
“High risk situations absolutely exist,” said Love. She added that she herself has been surprised by the conditions people live in around Franklin County due to addiction – houses with no floors, no electricity, children uncared for.
“Seeing how people live – you can’t see that from Route 105,” said Love. “I didn’t realize how much of an epidemic drug use was until I started working here. It’s heartbreaking.”
While DCF is uncovering more saddening, deplorable living situations for children in Franklin County, it’s also seeing progress with addiction treatment, how cases are worked through, and overall office operations and safety.
“People are absolutely getting into treatment faster,” said Love. At the time of her interview, she was tracking 25 clients.
Hall and Bryan said they have found Love’s help invaluable in working with clients. By learning to hold families accountable, understanding what’s happening in regards to their illicit drug use and getting them treatment, Bryan said Love’s expertise contributed to a case she recently closed successfully – the mother kept her child.
“We, as a department, started working with a young woman in September – she has one child who is very bright and bubbly,” said Bryan.
The mother had alcohol and opiate addictions. “She had such a hard time being honest,” Bryan said. “Hope’s kind of no bullsh*t approach kind of got this mom to open up more.”
Through planning and communication, Bryan said the mother was able to face her addiction and get treatment. “She hasn’t had one relapse or dirty UA [urinalysis],” said Bryan. “She is able to talk to me about what parenting feels like to her now, what it feels like to see her daughter run outside, to plan activities, to do things.”
Overall, Gibson said communication and collaboration between Love, caseworkers, supervisors and Gibson herself have improved how DCF operates, especially in regards to having more knowledge and awareness around substance use.
However, there are still challenges with the sheer demand on social workers, and how they communicate with supervisors and Gibson about what they’re doing with children, families, foster parents, courts, guardian ad-litems, lawyers, schools and other entities. In addition to being in the field, there’s plenty of paperwork to be filled out, too.
“The number one concern in the county I have [is] communication, because of all of these competing demands,” said Gibson. “They don’t have a lot of time to stop and just think about the work.”
That includes contemplating ways to ensure personal safety when interacting with families and their children. “I think we need more training – frequent, ongoing training on safety,” said Gibson. “People have given us tips and pointers, but its not ongoing discussions.”
What is ongoing is caseworker visits with Franklin County families in their homes. And that’s where Gibson is most concerned.
“The social workers are the heart and soul of the work,” said Gibson. “Safety is paramount.”