Being involved with Vermont’s child protection system is one of the most complicated experiences imaginable. From a child’s perspective, even at its best, it is often a traumatic transition. Children in foster care don’t choose where they are going, they often don’t have the opportunity to pack their belongings. They leave their family, their pets and sometimes their community, behind. They absorb new smells, new expectations, new foods, new values, they are guests in someone else’s lives.
Parents, foster parents, social workers, guardians ad litem, lawyers, judges, service providers, educators and clinicians all have a role — each critical in the process. With so many participants, there is ample opportunity for communication to falter, and the system to break down — people are left feeling like the collective system isn’t meeting the needs of the children in care.
We can’t access the data we need to share the full picture, including telling the stories of when things go well. Success stories are critical to public trust, by offering a deeper understanding of the monumental task that is expected of the people who do this work.
Foster care can be transformative when it is the right intervention at the right time. Children can soften into safety and see that a different life is possible. Biological parents can breathe and regroup. Foster families have the privilege of getting to know remarkable children in deep and profound ways. DCF has the privilege of reuniting families or finding a permanent family for a youth who cannot return home, and yet — even then — the work continues. There is much healing to be done. Healing that is most successful when relationships stay intact and foster families and families of origin become extended networks for each other, regardless of who is the primary care provider.
Foster care used to be seen as rescuing children, but now there is a more nuanced view as research and best practices continue to evolve. Vermont is trying to keep up with changing expectations, but struggles under the weight of an outdated and overburdened system. Without adequate tools and independent, objective oversight, we are setting everyone up to fail — especially children and youth. Even with limited data, we know that youth who have experienced foster care are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. We know they don’t have the same educational achievement rates as their peers. We think they are more likely to have children in care themselves. Without data, we rely on stories to explain our current system. DCF and the court are unable to comment, so the narrative is lopsided, incomplete, and more easily dismissed even if there is something to be learned.
Whether positive or destructive — foster care is life altering. Every child who experiences it deserves the best Vermont has to offer. Everyone needs to trust the process enough to be vulnerable. Having an outside, trusted voice is essential to instill that confidence. Vermont is the only state in New England that does not have an Office of Child Advocate (OCA), whose primary functions are to listen to concerns from the community and to provide a blueprint for systemic reform.
In this case, the community includes the children and youth involved, who often report they feel their input isn’t requested, valued or considered in their process. In the inherently stressful experience of child protection involvement, it can help de-escalate conflict for youth or family members to have an outlet outside DCF where their concerns can be heard and receive an independent response. Additionally, an external review by the OCA takes the time commitment from DCF or court staff who are stretched very thin. The independence offered by the OCA also helps overcome personal and institutional bias and eliminates conflicts of interest.
Perhaps most importantly, the OCA can perform random and targeted case reviews to shed light on trends in our outcomes and fill the gaps in the narrative. Why does Vermont have such a high rate of entry into foster care? Why are the numbers so different in different districts? Is this the result of good practice? Missing services? The swinging pendulum of expectations? How can we appropriately allocate resources throughout the Agency of Human Services? Are we able to achieve stability once children are in care?
Our child protection system is complex. An Office of Child Advocate is needed to create transparency, instill trust and guide the public officials who are responsible for its funding, policies and structure. Our children deserve no less.
Amy Brady, of Middlesex, is a policy associate for Voices for Vermont’s Children.