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Vt. Supreme Court Creates Commission as Drugs Overwhelm Family Court

  • Chief Justice Paul Reiber listens during Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday, June 22, 2011 in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2018

White River Junction — The opioid crisis has been tearing families apart for years, and with no sign of the epidemic waning, top officials in the Vermont court system are taking steps to address a dramatic increase in child protection cases.

Between fiscal years 2013 and 2016, the number of cases filed in Vermont’s family court that deal with child abuse and neglect increased by 63 percent, with many of the cases involving drug-addicted parents.

That “tremendous increase” not only puts a burden on the court’s ability to effectively manage the cases, but perhaps most importantly, represents more struggling and broken families in the state, Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

In response to the problem, the Vermont Supreme Court this week announced the creation of the Vermont Judicial Commission on Family Treatment Dockets, a panel of 17 people from all three branches of government that will analyze the current situation and brainstorm ways to improve the process that those types of cases typically follow. Doing so could help promote reunification of children with their families, and in a timely fashion, among many other things, according to a news release announcing the establishment of the commission.

“These are the most important cases the Vermont judiciary hears. The cases are so complex and involve so many parties,” State Court Administrator Patricia Gabel said during a conference call with Reiber, who is the chairman of the commission, and Associate Justice Karen Carroll, who is co-chairwoman. “We hope the commission can take a look back and see ... if there is a better way to provide support to the families while at the same time protect the children.”

Currently, many abuse and neglect cases come into the court system on an emergency basis through the state Department for Children and Families with allegations of improper parental care. The issue at hand is whether the parents should have custody of their children, and hearings are ultimately held on how parents could retain custody, said Carroll, who was a judge in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction.

Oftentimes, and increasingly, the parents have substance abuse or misuse problems and the process ends in a discussion about the parents losing custody.

“What is a big issue driving the creation of the commission is a lot of these cases, the majority, are ending up in termination of parental rights hearings,” Carroll said. “(The parents) could be doing well ... but there is a real strain between giving people time to be recovered and meeting the goals of permanency.”

The court must meet certain time frames. For example, the decision to terminate a parent’s rights has to be made within one year, Carroll said.

And the large caseload isn’t helping matters, she added.

“The whole process is on the table,” Reiber said. “ ... to look for every possible thing we could consider to improve our ability to meet the needs of the (people).”

The commission will explore the creation of a “treatment docket” in the family division’s abuse and neglect cases, which would be a program model designed to zero in on a person’s needs through frequent court hearings and close supervision with the goal of holding them “accountable for meeting their rehabilitation obligations using rewards and sanctions,” according to a document outlining the charge and designation of the commission. Treatment dockets focus on a set of individuals deemed to be “high-risk and high-need,” according to the document.

“Data have shown that despite their high costs, if all of the relevant stakeholders follow best practices, treatment dockets can reduce recidivism, thereby reducing costs to the justice system, the corrections system, families, communities and the state.”

The idea of treatment dockets isn’t novel. For example, some courts have substance abuse treatment dockets, and Windsor County has the Windsor Adult DUI Treatment Court Docket, a voluntary post-conviction program that provides specialized support to offenders in hopes that they can overcome alcohol dependence. Upon successful competition, the enrollees have the ability to get their criminal charges dismissed or reduced.

However, using treatment docket techniques for neglect and abuse cases that have a substance use component is a “new phenomenon,” according to the document.

Over the years, the typical age of individuals involved in the children in need of care or supervision docket, or CHINS, has gotten younger and younger. The most frequent age group is newborns to 5-year-olds, and often the cases are neglect, not physical abuse, Reiber said.

Kelly French, the Children’s Integrated Services Nurse at The Family Place in Norwich, applauded the court’s effort.

“Anything that benefits the child in terms of permanency is great,” French said. “We are all there to do what is best for the child.”

French wears a few different hats at The Family Place, which provides programming for families who need extra support. She has her hands in the county’s newly established “safe babies program,” which provides a way forward for mothers with substance abuse problems who lost custody of their babies who were born exposed. The program involves frequent meetings, a support system and a roadmap for parents to follow in order to regain custody.

“I feel like we are seeing more babies exposed, but a lot of them are (exposed) to the treatment meds (like Suboxone, a substance used to treat opioid dependence),” French said. “In terms of harder substances ... we are seeing less of that.”

The commission is to provide its interim recommendations to the state Supreme Court by July 1, and its final report by Dec. 1.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.