BOSTON (SHNS) – The Department of Children and Families is dealing with fewer cases today than it was several years ago, but those that remain are increasingly complex matters involving children with significant needs, the bureau chief said Tuesday.

While the COVID-19 pandemic created immense demand for state services across many other agencies, DCF Commissioner Linda Spears told lawmakers that her department, which aims to protect children against abuse and neglect, has seen a decline in its caseload.

Spears, who started as commissioner in 2015, said at a budget hearing the department’s caseload hit “the highest I’d ever seen it” around 2017 or 2018. Since then, it’s dropped about 20 percent, with half of the decline occurring since the public health crisis hit, she said.

Five years ago, the state had about 9,600 children in foster care, and that number today is around 7,800, according to Spears. She emphasized, though, that DCF is “definitely seeing more complicated cases” than it was several years ago.

“If you look at our congregate care capacity in particular and our foster homes, and I think this is one of the challenges our providers face, five, six, seven years ago and certainly pre-pandemic, programs saw a mix of kids. They saw kids with a broader spectrum of needs and strengths, kids who were doing reasonably well and kids who were really struggling,” Spears told the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

“That spectrum has really narrowed, and it’s narrowed toward the deeper end, with kids having more acuity, more difficult behaviors on a regular basis.”

“Truthfully, as someone who’s been in the helping professions for all of my life, I have seen kids with mental health difficulties the likes of which I’ve not seen ever. It’s very challenging,” she added.

Gov. Maura Healey’s $55.5 billion fiscal 2024 state budget bill proposes $1.37 billion for DCF, an increase of about 9 percent over the agency’s projected spending in FY23.