House members Thursday afternoon passed a bill that overhauls the legal process for transferring guardianship of a minor to someone other than the parents.
H.581 now goes to the Senate, where family advocates say they will once again fight for changes that didn’t make it into the House version.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Haas, P/D-Rochester, establishes clearer processes for situations in which someone other than the state, such as a grandparent, assumes responsibility for a child.
As the House Judiciary Committee crafted the bill, family advocates lobbied for it to include funding for organizations such as themselves to help families and guardians through what can be a complicated legal and bureaucratic maze.
“The bill is complicated for parents and proposed guardians to understand,” said Trine Bech, executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, after the vote.
Bech’s group and others, such as Vermont Kin as Parents, already help parents through the legal process and with other tasks such as collecting public benefits for the child. She said she will lobby the Senate to include a provision for advocates.
“We need some supports from this bill,” Bech said.
Her organization’s ultimate goal, she said, is to keep families together so guardianship doesn’t need to be an option, she said.
If legislators don’t modify the bill, she said, it is still much better than nothing because the streamlining of the legal proceedings for guardianship is much needed.
The bill deals only with guardianship situations between two private parties, not in instances when the state assumes control of a child.
The House Human Services Committee amended the bill to clarify the last section, which deals with the Department of Children and Families’ role in guardianship.
The bill makes clear that DCF’s role should be minor and says social workers should not recommend a guardianship, something parental advocates said happens frequently. Parents relinquish their rights because they are afraid DCF will take their children if they do not, Bech said.
After the vote, Rep. Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington, said the bill is the result of at least five years of attempting to fix the guardianship laws, something that proved to be an extremely complicated task.
“It’s a result of a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people,” said Wizowaty, clerk of the House Judiciary Committee.
In a perfect world, she said, the bill would include funding for advocates to help families through the guardianship process.
“But like with everything, it comes down to resources,” she said.
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