Trine Bech: Making the child protection system work

Published in Vermont Digger. Editor’s note: This commentary is by Trine Bech, who is executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center Inc.

Vermont Parent Representation Center (VPRC) is a parent advocacy and support organization for families at risk of losing their children to state custody. For over five years we have been hearing the voices of parents and families and bringing these voices to the decision-making tables.

Most often at these tables are DCF Family Services, in charge of our child protection system; DCF Economic Services, in charge of our financial support system; the Judiciary, making decisions about whether to remove children or return them; the Defender General, assigned to provide parent legal representation; the Health and Mental Health Departments, providing substance abuse and mental health treatment; and the Agency of Human Services and community housing system. All of these entities and others are involved in whether our most vulnerable families have their basic needs addressed so they have a chance to parent their children successfully.

Our child protection system is now in full-blown crisis. VPRC has been asked whether the violence against a DCF worker and the responses to this violence in the media and on every street corner leave us with concern that this specific incident may influence public attitudes or DCF regarding other parents in the future. The answers to this are multiple and complex.

The first concern, however, for understanding and for prevention, would be that we begin a serious examination of what is fueling such anger within families. Anger is well understood to be a secondary emotion. That means we resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from or cover up other vulnerable feelings such as fear, frustration and powerlessness.

We do know that the Vermont child protection system is too often experienced by parents as a punitive system where their voices are not heard; where people with the power to make decisions about their lives are disrespectful, judgmental and unresponsive to working with them to remove their very real barriers to success. They too often feel their DCF social worker to be someone who makes demands on them but does not help them with any of their needs. Their reality, not what the helping system thinks will be helpful, is what the research shows we must pay attention to. Many of our families have experienced trauma, and have gone on to have substance abuse and mental health issues.

We do know that the Vermont child protection system is too often experienced by parents as a punitive system where their voices are not heard; where people with the power to make decisions about their lives are disrespectful, judgmental and unresponsive to working with them to remove their very real barriers to success.

The research is very clear that a successful helping system must involve trust and safety as well as partner-consultant relationships between the providers and the clients. Relationships must be focused more on collaboration and less on hierarchy, and options provided and skills built so clients can exercise their own voices. Trauma informed care is a philosophy and a cultural change needed for our system to be effective.

Parents and families are our best resource and our system needs to recognize that. We have found that it is necessary to have a family advocate, be it a social service navigator or a lawyer, to insure that the system provides the social and financial services to which families are entitled in a fair and equitable manner. Lately we have experienced women cut off of ReachUp benefits only to be reinstated after we have filed appeals or sought help up the chain of command. We need to take a renewed look at how we make decisions to insure that personal biases and arbitrary and capricious applications of rules are not used to deny help to our most vulnerable populations.

Dr. William Bell, CEO of Casey Family Programs and former commissioner of the New York City child protection system, said in a recent speech: “We cannot possibly comprehend what it means to have a child forcibly removed from our custody. … There is no greater deprivation of physical liberty for parent or child than to restrict or sever the bond between them.” What William Bell might also have talked about is what happens to children when they are removed and placed in a foster care system which for decades has been unable to meet their needs.

Yet, in Vermont we have responded to what we call the substance abuse epidemic by removing 68 percent more young children in the last year without first providing less drastic options which would keep young children safe. We are not applying a standard of neglect for the removals, but rather risk of neglect. A previous history with DCF or previous untreated substance abuse is sufficient to remove a young child, despite the parent being in successful treatment for more than a year. Children are removed from the hospital, after hearings in which they cannot hear what the judge is saying, without first having an opportunity to speak with a lawyer, and without having anyone address how the child could be safe without removal. This atmosphere creates mistrust and some people crack.

Let us respond to the violence by having community conversations about how to remove barriers and making our system work for our most vulnerable families so that their children can remain safely at home when possible, and then can continue to be treated respectfully when it is not possible. Where we stand today is our shared tragedy and our shared responsibility.


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