December 3, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

What looks like an excellent non-profit organization in Vermont has issued a report on the state’s child welfare system.  Predictably, the picture it paints isn’t pretty.  This is the first I’ve heard of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, but if its report is any indication, it’s a professionally-run group that produces quality work.

I’ll have more to say about the report later, but for now this article hits the high points (Vermont Digger, 11/26/18).  Writer Lola Duffort is to be commended on a thorough, fair and balanced piece.
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…
“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.”
It’s the same story we hear in state after state.  Child welfare agencies are encouraged by a flow of federal dollars to take children from parents.  Those agencies are underfunded, understaffed and overworked.  Occasional cases make the headlines in which children die who should have been in foster care but weren’t due to the agency’s inability to meet the needs of all children at risk.  In turn, those scandal-creating headlines drive policy.  And that policy is to err on the side of taking children from parents so no more children die who shouldn’t.

None of that is the way it should be, but all of it is the way it is.

So now Vermont has an organization that’s working intelligently and responsibly toward reform.
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.
Those are all fine recommendations, but naturally they all take money.  And, as in so many other states, in Vermont money for children’s welfare is in short supply.  As we’ve seen in Texas and Arizona, if states really want to protect children as they all claim, they’re going to have to budget substantially more money to do so than is currently the case.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s Department of Children and Families is doing what other similar agencies have found expedient. 
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.
Yes, we’ve seen that too.  States have discovered that one easy way to avoid the inconvenience of due process of law, hearings, judges, evidence, lawyers and the like is to simply get parents to sign a “voluntary” plan to assess their kids, homes and selves.  Sometimes in other states that includes temporary placement with other adults.  By entering into a “voluntary” plan, the state is relieved of its obligation to produce sufficient evidence to convince a judge that taking the children into care is warranted.

What’s wrong with that?  The main thing is that sticky word “voluntary.”  The overwhelming majority of parents in the crosshairs of CPS are poor and poorly educated.  They’re also scared of the agency that has the power to take their kids from them.  Who wouldn’t be?  So when the caseworker forks over a document with a plan and tells them that it means they don’t have to go to court and promises that it’s only an “assessment,” many parents agree.

But the upshot is much the same as if it were part of the usual process for taking kids out of the home.  As Crist said, it’s a mechanism to get the kids but without the time and tedium required by due process of law.

Unsurprisingly, DCF Director Ken Schatz disagrees with the VPRC’s findings.
“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.
The problem with that is that, like the rest of the child welfare system, it’s underfunded.  The result is due process is name only.
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.
Still, Schatz has at least on good idea.
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.
Of course, for such programs to be effective, they’d have to be administered by an agency other than DCF or, if by DCF, then its culture of “intervene first, ask questions later” would have to radically change.  If parents knew that early intervention programs were just a precursor to the usual DCF process, they’d likely decline to take part, negating the programs’ potential effectiveness.

More on the VPRC’s report in due course.

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