In 2018 the Vermont Parent Representation Center [NPRC] delivered an analysis of Vermont’s child protection system showing the system was deeply flawed, that children were taken from their parents for unsubstantiated reasons, and that parents were placed on a registry without the proper protocols. The report was received with a shrug of the shoulders. Nothing happened.

The NPRC has since added to its research a report titled “The Substantiation Project”, which is an analysis intended to “test one of the most significant powers granted to state government: the power to substantiate [formally determine as guilty] a person for child abuse or neglect, and therefore place the person’s name on the Vermont Department for Children and Families [DCF] Child Protection Registry.”

It’s a stunning report. Outrageous, in fact.

The report can be summarized in one example: To test the system, the VPRC Substantiation Project accepted 30 appeals from people who had been judged by DCF as guilty of child abuse or neglect and whose names had been placed on the child protection registry. The appeals were not pre-screened, and no appeal was denied.

The result?

Every single one of the 30 appeals was reversed. Every one. 100 percent.

That’s not just astounding, it’s proof positive that the system is broken, that it needs changing. Vermont has over 25,000 people whose names are on the registry, which is like one out of everyt 20 Vermont adults. How many should be? Why don’t more people appeal?

NPRC’s report shows why. It took almost three years for the tiny non-profit organization to go through the 30 appeals. It’s a process that would cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 per appeal. Most Vermonters cannot afford the cost. Because so few people challenge the process, it’s not seen as a problem. There is no political motivation to force change. To the outside world, it’s a problem that doesn’t exist. And, for that same outside world, it’s a problem people don’t want to acknowledge, like corrections issues in general. Or mental health. 

It’s an issue because anyone on the registry is basically unemployable. And, obviously, if they are falsely charged the family’s children are also affected. It is an issue of what is just and what is not. For those 30 who had their guilty charges reversed, they obviously feel wronged. Justifiably. They were.

This social justice issue has finally attracted the interest of legislators. A bill, H.169 , has been introduced to change “child abuse and neglect investigation and substantiation standards. It also “changes the procedures for an individual to be placed on the Child Protection Registry and to petition for expungement from the registry.”

The bill is not intended to tilt the advantage from DCF to potential child abusers. In a letter to the editor on page 7 in today’s paper, William Young, former Commissioner of Social and Rehabilitation Services - the precursor to DCF - confirms that the system that now exists is broken and that H.169 is essential to correct things. Mr. Young was in that role for 18 years and knows more about the issue, and the department’s inner workings than almost anyone in Vermont.

When a former DCF commissioner warns about how broken the system is, that should be incentive enough to act. Or to at least pay attention and ask questions.

The bill’s proposed changes include a better alignment of the rules and regulations that guide the department’s operation. It intends to make sure investigations are “thorough, unbiased, based on verified evidence, and adhere to due process.”

It’s a given that DCF is critical of the legislation. The report points out the weaknesses of the existing system. But, in truth, the legislation should make DCF’s job easier and less fraught with expected legal challenges. It should increase the level of transparency, which the department desperately needs, and it should make DCF a better place to work. [Currently, the department is operating at diminished staffing levels, which makes the employees’ jobs more difficult and less satisfying.]

No one doubts the need to address child abuse and neglect. The state, through DCF, opens roughly 3,000 cases annually and finds a third of them guilty. Obviously, those children involved in cases of abuse and neglect need to be protected. But the best way to address the issue is to make sure the system is fair, that it makes sense, that the cross purposes are addressed, and that it is as transparent as legally possible. 

H. 169 is a vital step forward and should be supported. What we have now does not work. It is unjust and highly unprofessional. It would be an outrage to allow it to continue. The convictions in 30 cases were reviewed and then reversed; common sense says that is the tip of the iceberg. Why are we waiting, and why is it not at the top of our legislators’ agenda?

By Emerson Lynn

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