A new report from a nonprofit that advocates for parents argues that Vermont’s child protective system is fundamentally broken and too often removes children from families capable of parenting.
In “Bending the Curve to Improve Our Child Protection System,” a report out from the Vermont Parent Representation Center, the nonprofit uses an analysis of more than 70 cases it has worked on over the course of eight years and state data to make the case that the state reflexively removes children instead of supporting parents in need. The nonprofit does not serve parents in cases where child sexual abuse is alleged.
“We’ve gotten to this point where we really can’t separate out, in our administrative approach, the children who are being abused or neglected or at serious risk of that happening, from the families that just need assistance,” VPRC executive director Larry Crist said. “There’s really no distinction any more.”
The 117-page report contains more than 80 recommendations, including that the state create a dedicated ombuds office to monitor the outcomes and costs of the child protective system, as well as a Parent Representation Office to offer counseling and legal representation to parents who could lose custody of their children. Currently, attorneys for both parents and children are provided through the Defender General’s office, an arrangement that the report says leads to poor representation for parents.
The nonprofit also argues that assessments – a voluntary process created to get families access to services – have turned into “investigations by another name, and simply a mechanism by which families are monitored and children removed absent a court order.” It suggests reviewing whether the state should continue assessments at all or substantially reform use of the tool.
It also says that the mandatory monitoring the state must do over several months after an assessment is concluded unnecessarily increases work for employees at the Department for Children and Families, who are already overloaded.
VPRC also argues that DCF investigative reports often contain misinformation or outdated material but are never vetted properly, by court-appointed attorneys for parents or the prosecution. DCF workers should be required to submit standardized reports and the state’s attorney should review reports before the state moves to remove children, the nonprofit argues. The report also asks that more judges be hired to reduce the backlog of court cases.
Ken Schatz, the commissioner for Vermont’s Department for Children and Families, said he disagrees with the “approach” taken by the VPRC.
“But let me be clear: my view is that the Vermont child welfare system is under substantial stress,” he said.
And Schatz said the system includes a “variety of procedural safeguards” that ensure all parties are treated fairly.
“I know the report takes issue with some of those, but the reality is we do have a system that does actually appoint lawyers for the parents, for the children, separately,” he said.
Crist, for his part, said that lawyers who represent parents are so overloaded and unfamiliar with the child protective system that they effectively tell families to go along with that the state asks for.
“Most parents have an attorney assigned that they never meet until the day that they walk into court,” he said.
Schatz sits on a legislative committee tasked with reviewing how the state adjudicates the termination of parental rights. He said he’s most interested in early intervention programs that will help families get the support they need before there’s a need for DCF to get involved.
“I really want to talk about home visiting programs that have a multi-generational approach for parents with new children,” he said.
And Schatz also stressed that the state’s drug epidemic “has really caused this surge in the numbers coming under state supervision.”
The report acknowledges that substance abuse is cited in about 30 percent of DCF intake reports. But that number, VPRC notes, hasn’t gone up nearly as fast as another factor – poverty.
Between 2009 and 2016, intake reports citing financial stress grew at a faster rate than did those citing substance abuse, according to VPRC. Over that period, reports noting financial stress grew by 2,791 while those citing substance abuse grew by only 1,607.
VPRC also argues that two-high profile deaths of children under state supervision in 2014 – which lead to firings, additional money for social workers and changes to state laws – has too dramatically changed the way DCF workers calculate risk to children.
“The state has moved from child abuse and neglect to ensuring that nothing can possibly happen to any child, in any way shape or form, once the child comes to the attention of the state,” Crist said.
Linda Johnson, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, echoed Schatz’s call for more resources and said the opioid epidemic had stretched an overtaxed department even further.
“People say, you can’t throw money at everything. You can throw money at this,” she said.
Johnson said she’s often heard from angry parents who felt treated unfairly by the state. But she’s also heard from plenty families who felt DCF intervened at the right time and gave them a second chance to parent their children.
“It’s hard work going to someone’s door to assess what’s going on in a family,” she said.