A plan to combat the growing opioid epidemic in the state is being received with mixed responses. We agree and commend the recommendations that will help scores of children in Vermont, but we are saddened the recommendations were necessary in the first place.

The leadership being taken by the state’s judiciary is a remarkable, considerate step toward answers.

The number of child abuse and neglect cases filed in Vermont’s family court has grown exponentially due, in part, to the opioid crisis. In fact, children five and under represent almost half of the children placed in the care of the Department of Children and Families, with more than half of these children in custody as a result of their parents’ opiate addiction, according to authors of the report released this week.

“Vermont’s courts are seeing more struggling families whose members are in critical need of substance use disorder treatment and services that support long-term recovery,” said Patricia Gabel, Vermont’s state court administrator, at the time the commission was announced. “Filings of abuse and neglect cases in the Judiciary’s Family Division increased 63% between FY13 and FY16. The increase in these filings has stretched existing resources to the breaking point.”

By way of tackling the daunting task of creating such a structure for Vermont, “Evidenced-based techniques used in other states may provide ways to strengthen community partnerships and expand comprehensive services to meet the needs of the entire family. These techniques may show promise in promoting family reunification and timely permanency for the children involved in Family Division child protection cases, known as the abuse and neglect docket,” the commission’s website stated.

In response, the Vermont Supreme Court created the Vermont Judicial Commission on Family Treatment Dockets. Its members represent all three branches of government, as well as the medical and business communities. As part of its charge, the commission analyzed the cases filed in Vermont’s family court that deal with child abuse and neglect and considered whether the creation of family treatment dockets would improve outcomes for both children and parents.

In its final report, the commission endorsed the use of treatment docket best practices in the abuse and neglect docket and made recommendations to the Supreme Court as to the most appropriate family treatment model for Vermont.

The commission also recommended services that should be routinely offered when an abuse and neglect case is initiated in a court where a family treatment docket is not available. The commission recommended the creation of a regional, pilot treatment docket to help offset resource challenges faced by some smaller communities, emphasized the need for a collaborative approach and recognized the importance of trauma-responsive courts.

The commission also emphasized challenges faced by potential family treatment docket participants and the need for special attention to issues such as hearing times, participant transportation issues and access to treatment.

But there are challenges in getting the structure in place. The commission members were mindful the state needs to maximize impact with limited resources, as state budgets continue to run tight.

“A lack of resources both in the courthouse environment and in smaller communities support the creation of regional Family Treatment Dockets, beginning with a pilot docket,” the commission recommended.

That could mean looking regionally for answers.

“Judge rotation and lack of available courtroom space, security personnel, judge time and attorney availability are obstacles to adding another full docket to existing court calendars,” the commission noted. “Many of the smaller counties do not have available treatment or transportation options to support a county-based Family Treatment Docket … a regional approach would ensure that specially-assigned judges and judicial masters, attorneys, and DCF representatives are all adequately trained on treatment court best practices which must be followed to achieve benefits to families.

“Initiating these services as early as possible, with oversight from the court, would increase the likelihood of more successful rehabilitative outcomes for both parents and children,” the commission noted in its report.

We commend the commission for dutifully examining the effectiveness of different treatment docket practices and thoughtfully evaluating the connection between those practices and promoting the best interests of all Vermont children. Unfortunately, times demand it.

A copy of the commission’s full report can be found at https://bit.ly/2W2N3KO

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