Emotions ran high at a public hearing in Middlebury last night. It was one of a series of nine public meetings being held across the state to get input on Vermont’s child protective services.
Nine lawmakers and more than 40 people gathered at Middlebury’s public library and the testimony was sometimes painful.
Local resident Louise Forgues’ voice shook with anger and frustration. “What would you do if you saw one of your children being sexually abused?” she asked. “And you called DCF and you say ‘I saw this going on with my own eyes’ and what do I hear? ‘Do you have any evidence? Do you have any proof?’”
Forgues says she’s especially troubled by DCF's focus on keeping what she calls dysfunctional families together.
“Mr. Racine [Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine] wants to take these children no matter how badly they’re beaten on and keep them in the family regardless of how battered and beaten the mother might be. You’re taking care of bullies in the school,” she said, “what about the bullies in the home?”
A few minutes later someone else spoke out to chastise DCF for being too eager to break families apart. The two opposing views show just how difficult and complex child protection issues are for the state.
Doumina Noonan, a child care coordinator in Addison County, pointed out that social workers face increasingly difficult situations. Yet just as their caseloads are rising, she told lawmakers, community resources are being cut. And while substance abuse is a huge part of the problem she says DCF social workers are neither drug counselors nor mental health clinicians.
Senator Kevin Mullin says public input at the meetings has been helpful and he says lawmakers have to figure out a way to lift some of the confidentiality constraints surrounding DCF as well as provide more oversight of the agency. “Try to make sure that there’s better review of the state employees because what I’m hearing is we had a foster parent testify that she had worked with multiple offices and saw a vast difference in what happened at those offices. In one office,"Mullin said the woman testified, "they made frequent visits to confirm the child is okay and another office had never even gone to visit the child.”
Lawmakers will host their final three hearings on child protective services next Tuesday in St. Johnsbury, Montpelier and Morrisville. Committee members say they hope to present their recommendations by the end of the year.