A lawsuit filed Monday has renewed criticism the Vermont Department for Children and Families takes children away from families without due process.
The case alleges three children were taken from their parents without sufficient evidence substantiating abuse. Similar allegations were made in a previous lawsuit filed in August, by another family that says DCF removed children without thoroughly investigating accusations of abuse. Advocates say that more lawsuits with similar allegations are to be expected and that this trend points to larger cultural and systemic problems that have plagued DCF for years.
DCF cannot comment on ongoing litigation, according to Luciana DiRuocco, public information officer for DCF, or criticisms of DCF referenced in ongoing litigation. Consequently, Ken Schatz, commissioner of the department, was not available for an interview, DiRuocco said. Schatz provided a statement underscoring that DCF only removes children from families with a court order.
“DCF staff work with families facing some of the most difficult periods in their lives,” the statement said. “DCF is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the safety of Vermont’s children and supporting families to achieve stability.”
The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court by lawyers for Beth Vance and Joshua Forbes asks for unspecified compensation for damages they suffered when their three children were removed from their home by DCF.
Both Vance and Forbes have a history of substance abuse, the lawsuit says, for which Vance was undergoing treatment in 2018. Her doctor shared her medical history with DCF, which the lawsuit contends was unlawful.
Vance’s doctors told her that she needed to continue treatment at an inpatient facility far from her home. But because Vance did not have reliable transportation she refused out of concern that she would not be home to care for her children, according to the suit.
Vance was the primary caregiver for the children while Forbes worked.
Her medical provider told her that if she did not go to the distant treatment facility, she would be reported to DCF and her children would be taken away, according to the lawsuit.
Vance refused the treatment. And despite there being no evidence of abuse, she was reported to DCF because her substance abuse signaled there was a “risk of harm” to her children, the lawsuit says. On May 31, 2018, police removed Vance’s children from their home.
“The children were terrified,” the lawsuit states, “and were physically pulled apart from their parents.”
All three children were eventually reunited with their parents in November 2018 after the evidence was contested, the lawsuit says.
Larry Crist, executive director of the Vermont Parent Representation Center, said the lawsuit mirrors “hundreds” of other cases he’s seen where parents in Vermont are accused of abuse and their children are taken from them without any evidence.
“We have a system that has, somehow, lost its way,” Crist said.
Crist started working for DCF in the 1980s when the department was known as Social and Rehabilitation Services. Previously, SRS only offered child protection services, Crist said. Now, the department has combined those services with other general welfare responsibilities, which has created silos in the agency that don’t allow families to receive “wrap-around” support, as Crist called it, from both social services and DCF investigators.
“DCF is a punitive system,” Crist said, “Versus a system that is designed to assist families.”
He says this structural shift has led to the problems DCF has been struggling with for the past two decades. In 2007, Vermont’s DCF failed a federal audit, which put pressure on the agency to reunify children with their families. In 2014, two toddlers under DCF supervision were murdered, prompting criticism that DCF prioritized reunification over child safety.
Since then, a recently released report found that in 2018, DCF substantiated 1,182 reports of child abuse or neglect — the highest number in 14 years.
Crist said the lawsuit filed Monday reflects many of the issues VPRC presented in a 2018 report, which called for a holistic reform of Vermont’s child protection systems. Of the 80 recommendations in the report, Crist emphasized the need for an overhaul of the state’s public defender system, which he said is overwhelmed and lacks oversight.
Parents aren’t getting the legal support they need when faced with accusations of abuse. This problem, he said, is highlighted in the recently filed lawsuit.
Vance, the mother accused of child abuse, cycled through four “unskilled” public defenders, the lawsuit states. The lack of consistent legal representation did not allow Vance to challenge shoddy evidence provided to the judge which prompted the removal of her children, the lawsuit alleges.
Shlansky Law Group is representing Vance and the family that sued in August. David Shlansky, founder of the law firm, said he would not comment on the cases.
Crist put the lawyer in touch with some of his clients about seven months ago, and he expects more lawsuits to follow.
Trine Bech, founder of VPRC, said she’s disappointed that legislators have done “nothing” to address the problems the center’s report laid out in 2018. Lawmakers have allocated money for researchers with the University of Vermont to substantiate the findings in VPRC’s report.
“If the system had responded appropriately,” Bech said, “the lawsuits would not have happened.”
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.