- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (AP) - The number of young children who have been taken into state custody surpassed the number of teens in Vermont care for the first time ever.

Newborns, toddlers and preschoolers exceeded 12- to 17-year-olds as the largest group in state care, The Burlington Free Press (https://bfpne.ws/1KfQWhn ) reported. The numbers of each had been getting increasingly closer together since last summer.

Data shows that infants to 5-year-olds accounted for the highest portion of kids who were taken into custody as of August while the number of children ages 12 to 17 has still remained consistently high compared to 6- to 11-year-olds and those 18 and older.

Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner for the family services division at the Department for Children and Families, said it’s becoming more difficult to find placements for the newborns and toddlers. She said there’s a “shortage of families” who can take the very young children.

“So far, we have found them, but I am really concerned about that for the future,” she said.

Records show that the DCF started taking custody of more children around March 2014, just a month after a toddler died of head injuries in Rutland County. Similar deaths that have happened in recent years have put the agency under scrutiny.

Additionally, the department conducted an internal survey in June 2014 and found that opiates were a factor in 80 percent of cases where children under 3 were removed from their homes.

It also consulted with national experts and found that an increase in heroin use has impacted child safety.

“What we know about the impact of heroin is that those parents are highly unlikely to be able to prioritize the needs of the child over their need for the drug,” Walcott said.

The agency has a new model for responding to drug abuse in Vermont families: sending substance abuse experts to assist caseworkers when they visit homes. The experts screen parents for drug use and help them get treatment.

The model is currently in place at six of the state’s 12 DCF offices.

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