An Open Letter to the legislative Committee on Child Protection

By Mark Redmond and Kate Piper

We know that you will soon be concluding months of taking testimony regarding the child protection system in Vermont. We respectfully offer these recommendations regarding the problems that need to be addressed within not only the Department for Children and Families, but the child protection system as a whole.

First, it is important to recognize and understand that individual caseworkers are not the problem. The issues of concern are systemic. Vermont’s DCF workers are a very dedicated, hard-working group of public servants.

Second, Vermont rates second-lowest in the country in the percentage of reports of abuse and neglect that are accepted for some type of DCF response — either an investigation or an assessment. It is imperative that DCF start investigating far more of the calls that citizens make when they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.

Third, for those cases in which a child is taken into foster care, too many are being placed back with their parents before those parents are ready to safely resume parenting. We know this because Vermont has the sixth-worst record in the nation in the percent of children who were reunified with their parents and then re-entered foster care within 12 months. We recommend that the Defender General’s office, in conjunction with the Guardians ad Litem, and the State’s Attorneys, in conjunction with DCF, develop better training materials for their attorneys regarding investigation and risk assessment.

Fourth, while the preference for transferring custody of children to relatives rather than to DCF is commendable, kin custodians often end up receiving far less assistance from DCF than do foster parents. If we are going to ask relatives to step up and help with abused and neglected children, we have to provide them with much better support.

Fifth, we need to re-think the entire concept of Differential Response. Even DCF’s own workers recently addressed your committee and said “the DCF system known as Differential Response, adopted in 2009, isn’t working. The theory behind the system is a good one but it’s based on prevention, and there are not enough employees to make it work correctly … there are not enough community services to which they can refer families…” Those courageous workers are right. Differential Response is based on the concept that fewer children will be removed from their homes, and instead community supports will be provided to the family. But the state is not adequately funding those supports, and the number of calls alleging abuse and neglect has increased 24 percent in the last four years, while the number of children in custody has decreased from about 1,400 on any given day to 1,000. So calls are going up, fewer children are being removed from homes, and the community supports aren’t there.

We strongly recommend that DCF re-evaluate the safety outcomes of Differential Response and reconsider the criteria used for the assignment of cases to the assessment track.

We hope that these recommendations are of help to you in your decision-making process in the coming months. Our children and families are counting on you to come through for them with a child protection system that preserves and strengthens families while also ensuring safety.

Kate Piper, J.D., M.Ed., represented children in child protection proceedings in Vermont for 20 years and is currently a doctoral candidate in social policy at the Heller School at Brandeis University. Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services.