MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont Attorney William Sorrell said Tuesday lawmakers should consider reducing the privacy of cases handled by the Department for Children and Families and other state agencies investigating the abuse and neglect of children.
In comments Tuesday before the Legislature's Committee on Child Protection, Sorrell said Vermont was one of a handful of states where "the doors are locked" for family court proceedings involving children in abuse or neglect cases.
"The reality is historically Vermont has been one of the states that has treated family court, abuse and neglect cases as secret proceedings with very real restrictions on public access," Sorrell said.
He said the confidentiality can hinder good communications when investigations are underway and during the casework stage of child protection cases.
The recommendation of reducing the confidentiality of child protection cases was the top of five recommendations Sorrell presented to the Committee on Child Protection.
He said about 17 states start the processes for child protection cases by assuming they are public. Working from that, all or parts of the proceedings can be closed as requested by the attorneys or the court.
One of the complaints about such a system is that parents, victims or others might not want to testify because the proceedings are public, he said.
"In response to that, in our family courts, divorce and custody matters and the like, there's all kinds of stuff like that that gets aired," Sorrell said.
"If the child is injured and a criminal charge ensues, that's all very public," he said.
The committee was formed earlier this year to examine the workings of the state's child welfare system in the aftermath of the deaths of two toddlers. In one of those cases, an investigation found there was a lack of communication among agencies involved with the child.
The committee has traveled the state collecting the opinions of Vermonters on child protection issues and has been holding weekly hearings at the Statehouse to gather input from state workers and others involved in the system.
The committee members asked questions of Sorrell, but the members did not formally respond to his suggestions.
Sorrell's other four recommendations:
— Vermont should consider joining the majority of other states and pass laws that explicitly say drug-addicted caregivers pose a risk to children;
— Have the judiciary assume responsibility for the training and minimum performance standards for attorneys representing children in family court proceedings;
— Consider amending state law to hold a parent or caregiver responsible for permitting a child to be physically or sexually abused, even though he or she may not be the perpetrator;
— Considering changing criminal law to expressly address the threats to child welfare of residing in a home where an investigation has found child pornography or the production of child pornography.
"There is no silver bullet cure," Sorrel said in prepared remarks distributed at the hearing. "Ours is a system of people making subjective decisions relating to child welfare. None of us is perfect. We will continue to make mistakes, but that should not hinder efforts toward improvement."
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