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Vt. Divided Over Confidentiality in Child Abuse Cases

Thursday, August 20, 2015
Montpelier — Attorney General Bill Sorrell said that limiting confidentiality around family court could improve transparency and accountability in the child protection system, but others are not convinced.

Cases dealing with child abuse and neglect are typically handled behind closed doors, and the records are generally not available to the public.

In an interview Wednesday, Sorrell said that level of confidentiality has been enforced since he began practicing law in the 1970s — but that changing the policy could bring accountability to court proceedings that have long been out of the public’s view.

“There are a number of good policy reasons that could support more transparency or sunshine, if you will, on abuse and neglect proceedings,” Sorrell said.

Opening up records related to child protection proceedings could help to increase public awareness of abuse and neglect, as well as help the public better understand the resources necessary to adequately protect children, he said.

More access to the records would also allow for greater oversight of the judicial system, he said. Judges and attorneys would not be able to hide behind a system that currently operates with absolute confidentiality, Sorrell said.

But others — including Matt Valerio, the defender general — staunchly oppose Sorrell’s proposal.

“It’s more about politics and trying to satisfy some kind of public interest,” Valerio said Wednesday.

Confidentiality in family court proceedings is meant to create an environment where families can heal and rehabilitate safely, Valerio said. Often proceedings involve deeply private evidence, including medical and mental health records, which confidentiality is intended to protect.

“The idea is to preserve the therapeutic nature of the court,” Valerio said.

Sorrell first outlined his argument to lawmakers a year ago when a legislative committee met to study the child protection system in the wake of the deaths of two toddlers.

Ultimately lawmakers did not opt to include Sorrell’s proposal, which made changes to broad aspects of the state’s system for addressing child safety.

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Human Services Committee and a social work lecturer at the University of Vermont, said by phone Wednesday that the Legislature did adopt some new policies to increase communication around child protection procedures.

“We tried to walk the line between protection of children and confidentiality and not having someone’s private life unnecessarily open to public view,” Pugh said.

The child protection legislation did make some changes as to who has access to records about a particular case.

Under the new law, certain people familiar with the child will have access to some information about the case — a list that includes physicians, educators, foster parents and others.

Pugh said that reflection on current policies can be beneficial — so long as the emphasis remains on child protection.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz said that the department opposes opening court proceedings for cases involving children in need of supervision.

“We think they have the real serious potential of causing stigma for the child and that would only lead to further traumatization,” Schatz said.

For one, Schatz said, Vermont is a small state: even if the names of children are withheld, their identities would be immediately obvious based on the identity of parents.

Schatz also said that privacy is a concern in the Internet age, when private information related to a court proceeding may follow a young child through their teenage years into adulthood.

Schatz said that he believes the changes under the legislation passed this year address concerns and ensures that people who need access to information about a case can get it.

Meanwhile, DCF routinely does internal evaluations regulating the work of the family services division with regard to child abuse and neglect cases. The department also puts out an annual report, he said.

Valerio said that an internal review process ensures that individual attorneys within the Defender General’s Office are routinely scrutinized, and help to monitor the functionality of the child protection legal system as a whole.

The office then holds mandatory training sessions that bring attorneys up to speed in areas that there may be weaknesses.

David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, sees arguments on both sides of the debate.

“There may be certain structural defects in the family justice system, just as there are potential defects in any system of government, that would stand to benefit from the collective wisdom of society,” Cahill said.

On the other hand, he said, the argument must be weighed against the right to privacy.

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