RUTLAND, Vt. — The head of the Vermont Department for Children and Families said Wednesday he welcomed public attention about the challenges his department is facing as it tries to protect vulnerable children in an era of shattered families and rising drug abuse.

Commissioner Dave Yacovone made the comments after a group of lawmakers held three public hearings Tuesday into the operations of the department that gave many witnesses the opportunity to point out what they felt were the shortcomings of the department.

“This kind of focus on these issues gives me promise,” Yacovone said. “Until people look at this issue and do a deep dive and really begin to appreciate the challenges of running a system like this, the challenges that kids are facing … If I want to change the status quo, and I do, the way I do that is to get people to look at these issues.”

The hearings were called following the deaths of two toddlers in separate incidents. They were intended to learn about the workings of DCF and not investigate the deaths of the children.

The department’s workload has doubled in the last five years as the state has struggled with heroin and opiate addiction problems.

During the 90-minute hearing in Rutland on Tuesday evening, more than a dozen people told the Legislature’s Committee on Child Protection about their frustrations with a system they believed puts the goal of reuniting families ahead of the best interests of children.

Yacovone said the department’s policy does put the interest of the child ahead of the goal of keeping biological families together. He said over a five-year period 4,175 left state custody and of those, 46 percent were returned to their biological parents.

“The perception I think is that we’re not putting the welfare of the child over genetics,” Yacovone said. “It’s like whoops, everybody gets reunified. Hardly. That’s just not the case.”

Of the children who are not returned to their parents, many are adopted, others live with other relatives such as grandparents or aunts and uncles. Still others stay in the foster care system until they become adults, Yacovone said.

While the hearings were not meant to investigate the deaths of the two toddlers, the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, and the April death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, hung over the hearing.

Peighton’s death has been ruled a homicide, and his mother is facing second-degree murder charges. Dezirae’s stepfather has been charged with second-degree murder. Both have pleaded not guilty.