By Trine Bech
Before I retired as an attorney, I had been professionally involved in all sides of the child protection system. I have represented children and parents, run a child protection agency, and advocated for changes in the system to better serve children and families.
I believed that the State had an important role in the protection of children. But never did I think that we would come to a point where our government would include one out of every 26 people on their list without ever going to court. This list is called the Child Protection Registry. If you are on this list, employers can reject you for any job involving children, and current employers can terminate you.
A new study, Broken System, Broken Promises, has found that every time the state’s allegations are challenged, the state is found to be lacking the necessary evidence. Unfortunately, few people challenge the process because of the cost and complexity involved. When the State takes away your right to employment, due process of law requires that the system is fair and provides opportunities to be heard. The report shows that the current system is woefully lacking in due process.
Our child protection laws have created two parallel processes: First, the substantiation of child abuse and neglect, where a state department finds one guilty and can place you on the Registry. The second is the Child in Need of Care and Supervision (CHINS) process in Family Court.
The two processes use different standards of proof. A person can be found not guilty in one forum, but guilty in the other, for the same allegations. Neither process knows what the other is doing.
The State provides a public defender in Family Court, but no attorney in the substantiation process and the cost of hiring an attorney is prohibitive for most Vermonters. The Study also found that often the people who have been placed on the Registry did not get any notice and only learn of it when they are rejected from a job opportunity. The Report proves that families are routinely traumatized, children removed and taxpayer dollars wasted on a system that cannot tell the difference between those who abuse children and those who do not.
This is a mess and Vermonters deserve better. We can and must clean it up. House Bill H.169 is a good starting point.
The author is a Burlington resident.