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Editorial: In Children’s Best Interest, Vermont Needs Transparency

Anyone who doubts that Vermont’s child protection system is a mess need only to consult Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s remarks this week to a legislative committee in order to be set straight.

“Our existing laws are clear in that the controlling determinant is to be ‘the best interests of the child,’ ” Sorrell told the Committee on Child Protection. “When in doubt, it is the child’s welfare that is to be pre-eminent. Despite this statu- tory obligation, on many occasions it appears that parental and/or other familial rights trump those of the child or children — and sometimes with horrifying results.”

Sorrell did not confine himself to generalization but cited chapter and verse to back up the point. The examples he used were both eye-opening and profoundly depressing, as in this one dealing with the death of a 2-year-old in February.

“The facts are abundantly clear in the recently released report of the investigation into the handling of the D.S. case conducted by the Vermont State Police. (The Department for Children and Families), law enforcement and the legal system failed her. Among other issues, there was inadequate investigation of the risks to D.S. presented by her mother’s boyfriend turned husband. Critical information within DCF was not shared between DCF personnel. Nor was this information provided to the deputy state’s attorney or the attorney who represented D.S. Neither the (deputy state’s attorney) nor the appointed attorney requested the DCF records. The judge making the ultimate decision to return D.S. to her mother was not the same judge who had prior knowledge of the case and who had earlier expressed concern about the effect of the mother’s criminal conviction on the reunification plan.”

The attorney general made five recommendations for legislative action, only one of which seems likely to be controversial. But we think it is the most important one. He urged the committee to consider easing the confidentiality requirements that have inhibited communications at the investigation- and casework level among DCF, law enforcement personnel and community members. Moreover, he suggested that Family Court proceedings and related records dealing with child welfare and termination of parental rights cases, which are currently closed, be opened to the public and the press.

In at least 19 states, abuse and neglect cases are presumed to be open to the public, and Sorrell suggests that Vermont do likewise, while preserving judges’ discretion to close them when compelling circumstances dictate. That makes all sorts of sense, because the current system provides no way to evaluate the decisions or performance of judges, lawyers and DCF personnel involved in child protection cases. The public cannot be expected to have confidence in a system of which it knows almost nothing because it operates in secret.

We are well aware that this argument can be seen as self-serving on the part of a newspaper. But many journalists are acutely sensitive to the issues of privacy that other kinds of court proceedings present for children and already do their best to act responsibly while also informing the public.

If a key component of the journalistic mission is to provide the means by which society’s institutions can be held accountable, then reporters and editors need reasonable access to the decision-making process to fulfill that duty. It is hardly unusual for complaints about the treatment of individuals in Family Court proceedings to reach editors here, and it is an ongoing frustration to be unable to look into them to try to determine whether an injustice may have been done or they are unfounded.

Child protection cases often present issues sufficiently vexing to confound the wisdom of Solomon, and as Sorrell pointed out to the committee, mistakes are always going to be made. Some will have tragic consequences. But we are convinced that increased scrutiny of the system will ensure that fewer of them are made and the best interests of vulnerable children prevail more often.