An Essex County man, who has spent 17 years volunteering his time as a guardian ad litem, quit in disgust over what he calls a broken child protection system.

"I really felt the system is so horribly broken that I don't want to be part of it anymore," Ken Stransky said.

Stransky said rules regarding confidentiality prevent all parties from receiving essential information and also prevent the public from being aware of how their tax dollars are spent.

The Department for Children and Families (DCF) does whatever it wants, regardless of the views of attorneys or guardians ad litem (GAL), and family court judges too frequently work from inadequate information, Stransky said.

In one case this summer, Stransky and both attorneys, including Essex County State's Attorney Vince Illuzzi, emphatically told Judge M. Kathleen Manley that particular children should not be returned to their parents' home. All parties said the children required intensive mental health treatment to limit trauma.

DCF staff moved the children back home the next day, without offering them counseling, Stransky said.

Manley's hands were tied, he said.

"Why do we even bother to have these hearings?" Stransky asked.

Illuzzi said Judge Manley does a great job, but she can only react to the information presented to her, which is frequently insufficient.

"DCF pretty much calls the shots no matter what other parties say," Illuzzi said.

Ken Schatz, who was appointed commissioner of DCF in early Sept., said DCF workers come to court with an opinion that may differ from that of GALs and attorneys. "Ultimately it is the judge's role to make a decision in these matters," Schatz said.

That's not to devalue the role GALs play, Schatz said. "Their value is that they provide an independent voice," he said.

DCF is working very hard to address problems in how it delivers services, Schatz said. Two independent committees - one composed of citizens and the other composed of legislators - have come up with recommendations for improving Vermont's child protection system.

Understaffing has been a source of problems, Schatz said, and 18 new positions authorized by the Legislature will help reduce the individual caseload of social workers.

Formerly, when DCF took action contrary to the wishes of all other parties, judges would hold the department in contempt, Stransky said. That doesn't happen anymore, he said.

"They have no fear of accountability, that a judge can actually do anything," he said.

One change that would help is to grant GALs legal authority, like GALs in New Hampshire, Stransky said. In New Hampshire, GALs are also paid for their time.

That fits with one recommendation of the committee of lawmakers, which suggested that judges consider the opinions of GALs in making decisions.

A shortage of DCF social workers, attorneys and available court time results in cases being dragged out past their 12-month statutory limit, Stransky said, when in most cases, it is clear in a relatively short period of time whether reunification with parents is going to work out.

This results in children being kept in state custody - in foster homes, juvenile detention facilities and kinship care - for far too long, Stransky said.

After Gov. Jim Douglas left office, Stansky began noticing the push toward placing children with family members rather than with experienced foster families. The problem is that in most cases, the extended family is part of the problem that put the child at risk in the first place. Stransky said abuse is often a generational problem, and placing at-risk children with those grandparents who abused their parents perpetuates a bad situation.

The policy regarding reunification at all costs was a push by the Shumlin administration, Stransky believes.

"Slowly, the judiciary caved and the result is that children have been harmed. Some have died," Stransky said, referring to the deaths of two toddlers who were returned to abusive homes.

In one case, Stransky said, a toddler experienced severe physical abuse. DCF's "knee jerk" reaction was to place the child with grandparents. In a short time, child protection workers found out that two of the child's four grandparents were on the sex offender registry for convictions in other states.

"It's great to say family is best, but check them out first," Stransky said.

Illuzzi said the DCF policy of reunification at all costs has not worked out. "That policy is obviously a failed policy, and there have been tragic consequences," Illuzzi said.

Schatz said DCF needs to be very clear with social workers and all other involved in child protection that reunification at all costs is not, in fact, the policy of the DCF.

"Reunification should only occur when it is in the best interests of the child," Schatz said.

Social workers have to make hard calls, Schatz said, and not everyone is going to agree in all cases. But he said child safety needs to be the foremost concern.

Everyone involved in the system hides behind a veil of confidentiality, Stransky said.

"In an effort to protect the child, we really protect everybody else," Illuzzi said. "You only find out about it when there is a tragic consequence that makes it public."

Schatz said confidentiality rules are intended to protect children from the stigma associated with being abused.

Both Stransky and Illuzzi brought up a case involving shaken baby syndrome which resulted in the baby, who is now about six months old, being left comatose. All adults present said they were innocent, and no criminal charges were filed, Stransky said.

In those cases, if the child lives, even after suffering permanent damage, and parents are not charged with crimes, the public will never know about it, Illuzzi said.

People who abuse children shouldn't be able to hide, Stransky said. He suggested working with the media to cover cases to address the parents' criminality but with the caveat that reporters will not photograph or identify the child.

Schatz said there have been conversations in a legislative context regarding changes to confidentiality rules, but Schatz hopes any changes will be mindful of the damage to children that can occur when their abuse is made public.

Stransky and Illuzzi both said confidentiality rules have been cited in cases where they have been denied essential information - even in one case in which it was falsely alleged that a father was heading to a school with a gun to take the kids.

The privacy rules are not intended to keep information private from parties involved in a case, Schatz said. He's not aware of cases in which this has taken place, and said his understanding is that confidential information can be shared with all service providers involved in a child protection case.

Illuzzi said when Stransky couldn't get information, he would investigate the cases himself, at his own expense. "He burned up a lot of shoe leather," Illuzzi said. "He would inform himself to the fullest extent possible."

The recommendations from the legislative committee include expanding the "cone of confidentiality" to include everyone involved in a case - including law enforcement officers, educators, treatment providers, and DCF workers.

These cases cost taxpayers grand sums, Stransky said. In the shaken baby case, the child's medical bills are now way over $1-million, yet the public isn't allowed to know how their money was spent.

In another case, one child with special needs is costing a school district $100,000 a year, but even during public budget discussions, the school board is not allowed to tell taxpayers the reason for that expense.

"The public will gripe about $5 in food stamps, but then you have a $100,000 bill that the public isn't allowed to question," he said.

"The public has no rights anymore. They don't have a right to knowledge. They don't have a right to information. They don't have a right to their say. That's just wrong," Stransky said.

Schatz said DCF's budget is public. He said DCF has requested the formation of an oversight panel to review DCF's operations and finances. That panel would have access to confidential information in order to do so.

Schatz said he is open to hearing complaints and will investigate each claim presented to his office.

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