By E.M. “Bud” Allen, Esq.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families maintains a list, a registry of those that the Department has “substantiated” for abusing or neglecting children. This is not a particularly exclusive list, in that roughly 25,000 names are on the list, about 5% of all adult Vermonters.
And it’s not particularly difficult to be added to the list. All it takes is for a caseworker and his or her supervisor to determine that the available information regarding the subject of their inquiry is such that a “reasonable person” could conclude that abuse or neglect had taken place. Note that this standard of proof is not only lower than the “preponderance of evidence” standard (i.e. 51%) used in our civil and juvenile courts, it is effectively the reverse of the standard used in our criminal courts. In DCF’s system, the subject is substantiated if there is a reasonable doubt as to his or her innocence.
This low standard of proof combined with bureaucratic timidity makes it very easy to be added to the registry. But it is very difficult to get taken off the registry.
While one is on the registry, one is effectively disqualified from employment in a wide variety of jobs (e.g. health care, education, law enforcement) regardless of qualifications and extremely limited in one’s role as a parent. To be sure, there are people on the registry who have consciously, repeatedly abused children and others who have seriously neglected children in their care. However, there are also people on the registry who were just regular parents confronted with extraordinary circumstances. Not surprisingly, most of those on the registry could not afford legal counsel.
The Department calls the process that places a Vermonter on the registry “substantiation,” but the evidence that supports that action is far from substantial. Ask your representative to support legislation to make this system more reliable and fair.
The author has been practicing law in Chittenden County since 1978. He is a former assistant attorney general and public defender.