Minor Guardianship Innovation Project
Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and produced by The Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellowship Network.
The Minor Guardianship Innovation Project is a completed demonstration project that included direct service and advocacy work by Vermont Parent Representation Center. The advocacy resulted in a Minor Guardianship Legislative Study Report in 2012 and a new guardianship law, Act 170, which became effective on September 1, 2014.
The Minor Guardianship Innovation Project provided pre-hearing legal education and support services to families filing for minor guardianship.
VPRC and K.I.N.K.A.N. Vermont (Kinship Information & Navigation/Kinship Advocacy Network) partnered in 2012-2013 to launch the grant funded Minor Guardianship Innovation Project. Legal education and support services were provided to families in Addison and Chittenden counties who were considering minor guardianship. Interested parties received consultations before the minor guardianship court hearing to discuss the rights, roles, and responsibilities of each party. Legal education was also provided about how custodial minor guardianship functions, as well as the support and services that are available in Vermont.
Scope of Project. The pilot group consisted of 11 families with 16 children who had already filed for custodial minor guardianship or were contemplating filing. The staff provided legal education and strength-based, multi-generational social supports to help the families make informed decisions and to provide opportunities for supports to carry out their decisions.
The Project demonstrated that a minor guardianship functions better for all parties involved when a three step process is followed before the hearing is held.
Step 1: Host a Pre-hearing Consultation. The consultation should centers on the Family Strengths, and should be offered to both the Parents of the Minor Children, Children ages 14 and over, and the proposed Guardians. Purpose of a pre-hearing consultation include:
- Determine: Why do the guardianship petitioners feel a guardianship is needed?
- Reflect: Are the children’s basic needs met without any change in family placement? Are there supports/services missing that could ensure that basic needs are met?
- Explore: Are there legal options/alternatives to minor guardianship that the extended family believes could address the current circumstances?
- Understand the Impact of the Decision: Does any family member feel pressured to agree to the minor guardianship or other legal placement alternative? Do all family members understand the shift in legal rights and responsibilities and what their new obligations will be?
- Looking Forward: How long do the family members believe that guardianship or other chosen legal option is needed? How will major decisions be made for the children? What will the family situation look like when guardianship or other legal option is no longer needed?
- Discuss Action Needed: What needs to happen to terminate guardianship or other legal option? (be specific).
- Maintain Parent-Child and Sibling Contact: Research indicates that when children and parents are separated that it is in the best interests of children to have maximum safe contact with parents in the least restrictive setting. Finding ways for frequent contact is the responsibility of both guardians and parents.
Step 2: Ensure Informed Consent – Download informed consent form here Both parents must understand that they have constitutional rights to raise their children unless they are unfit. The burden to show unfitness is on the person seeking minor guardianship or other placement alternative;If they agree to guardianship they must do so with full understanding and do so freely and voluntarily. Their consent cannot be pressured or coerced by anyone, including DCF.Both parents must understand that once the guardianship takes effect, it is up to the Court whether or not to terminate the guardianship.
Step 3: Explain the difference between voluntary and contested guardianship.
- Voluntary Guardianship: Both parents agree and there is no court finding of unfitness. If in the future the parent wants the guardianship terminated, the guardians must agree unless they show that the parents are unfit.
- Involuntary/Contested Guardianship: The court will hold a hearing and the proposed guardians must show facts that the parents are unsuitable to parent the child. Unsuitability includes abandonment, abuse, or the child is without proper parental care or substance, education, medical or other care necessary for his/her well being, or is without or beyond the control of his/her parents or is truant without justification.
- After a contested hearing, if the court finds that the parent is unfit, the parents will need to show the Court that they have successfully addressed the reasons they were found unfit before the Court will terminate the guardianship.