by Jacqueline Haessly
Child Protective Services came under close scrutiny recently during the National Governor's Conference meeting in Burlington, VT. A forum, held during the Governor's Conference (which had children's issues as its theme), drew national attention to the need for reform of Child Protective Services (CPS) throughout the country.
NCFR was among the more than 20 national and state co-sponsors of this event which:
At issue is whether the office of the State Rehabilitation Services (SRS) in Vermont has acted appropriately in its handling of child protection cases. The public event grew out of the work of Dr. Deborah G. Alicen, a clinical psychologist practicing in Vermont, who did her doctoral dissertation on child protective services. She was looking at the range of problems in CPS, from children being put back into abusive homes to children being permanently taken from their parents when little or no abuse had occurred. She became interested in the actions of CPS in l988 while she was a doctoral student at The Graduate School of The Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While Dr. Alicen was conducting her research, she learned that many mothers had children who were wrongfully removed from home when their fathers were accused of sexual or physical abuse of the children. In many instances, the children were prevented by CPS from reuniting with their mothers after they had been placed in foster care. After several years of fighting the state system, which-- in some cases--prevented the mothers from having any contact with their children, a number of these mothers became depressed at the loss of their children and committed suicide. One of these women was a client of Dr. Alicen's who, less than two months after she began her studies, committed suicide.
Another significant finding from her research indicated that many case workers have no college training, and that only 28 percent of all CPS workers in the country have either a Bachelor of Science in Social Work or a Master of Science in Social Work degree. Thus, 72 percent have no professional training for their work, which affects so many families and so many lives.
Dr. Alicen states, "I changed my program, did my research, wrote my dissertation, and got my doctorate to give me credibility to effect change in the system.
Dr. Alicen's research was made public in early 1995, and became the foundation for a Vermont coalition calling for statewide support for reform of CPS. As the stories of tragedies multiplied, the movement grew to include a number of ad hoc groups formed for the purposes of advocating reform in Vermont's CPS system.
According to Dr. Alicen, group membership spans a range of conservative, liberal. civil libertarian, working class, and middle class individuals and families, as well as lawyers. family counselors and family advocates. The Rev. Mike McHugh, former director of Operation Rescue in Vermont, and Rabbi Joshua Chason of Montepellier, served with Dr. Alicen as spokespeople for the Coalition.
During the event itself, representatives of these groups addressed the issues impacting on families. I was privileged to represent NCFR at this statewide event. In my address to the assembly, I encouraged CPS agency staff to provide services to the child while also providing emotional and psychological support for the parents as they attempt to meet their family's needs. I also spoke of the need for foster and adoptive families to be given full and honest information about a child's personal and family history, as well as necessary emotional and financial support to help the child and family address the issues (such as incest and abuse) that are often a part of that history. I also called for a process of full and open communication which embraces the right to shared decision-making between parents and CPS workers in discussing the needs of families.
Speaking from the perspective of Families as Educators for Peace in the Family, the Community and the World, I also encouraged training in Peacemaking and Creative Conflict Resolution skills for CPS staff and parents, stating that children deserve families who can nurture and care for them in an ever more complex and sometimes violent society. I was also able to inform people of the work that NCFR does to support families through research, education, and service.
Valerie White, Esq.. who is the immediate past president of Vermont American Civil Liberties Union, had been the attorney of record for several of the women who later committed suicide. She spoke of the frustration she felt at her inability as an attorney to address the illegalities that took place within the CPS system. Dr. Duane Motley, Legislative Director for the American Association of Christian Schools and active with the national home schooling movement, spoke of the growiny tendency of CPS agencies across the country to remove children for homes of parents who are active in either of these two organizations. Dr. Bob Belenky, a professor of psychology in Vermont, spoke of his frustration with the manner that data was collected by CPS staff in the process of conducting home studies.
Dispersed throughout the other presentations were the personal stories from parents who told how they and their families were abused by the CPS system in Vermont Perhaps the most tragic was the story of one father who had been falsely accused of abusing his children, who were then removed from the home. The mother, a supporter of the father, was repeatedly denied contact with her children. After trying for years to correct the charges, she finally committed suicide. Two weeks later, the charges against the father were proven to be false and were dropped, and his children returned to him.
In addition to NCFR, other cosponsors of the event included the American Association of Christian Schools, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, Defenders of Vermont Family Rights, Friends of the Family, National Association of Social Workers, National Family Research Council, National Homeschoolers Defense Fund, National Office of American Civil Liberties Union, National Organization for Women, Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Vermont Chapter of the National Organization for Women, Vermont Citizens for Community and Families, Vermont Progressive Party, and the Vermont Women's Union. Dr. Alicen noted of the coalition, "I'll admit it was a little disconcerting, on the one hand, to have my feminist analysis being used by the political and religious right, but on the other hand it seemed to present a unique opportunity. From one state to another, criticisms of CPS have historically been too easily brushed off as the invalid grumbling of one political fringe or another, and perhaps both sides standing up at the same time might have the potential for forcing governments to the table, to seriously address the problems in both directions, of intervening too little or too much."
Dr. Alicen's research has pointed to a few reform models in the U.S. Idaho took on an immense ideological shift involving working with parents toward solutions, rather than focusing primarily on punishing parents. New Mexico has a "Family to Family" project, in which trained families intervene with abusive families. North Carolina has a system for tracking CPS worker actions, so that if a bias is indicated by a consistently higher than average incidence of particular actions (e.g., terminations of parental tights, or decisions not to intervene in certain kinds of suspected abuse cases), that worker would be directed to specific training addressing such bias.
There has been remarkable response to the work of the coalition. The event in Vermont was preceded by several press conferences which received state and national coverage. The program itself was video taped for use on Vermont Child Watch, a state-wide public access program. Governor Dean, governor of Vermont, has spoken out as a strong advocate for children. Dr Alicen has served as an expert witness in several court cases where a family is suing SRS, including a new case where a mother recently committed suicide.
According to Dr. Alicen, in early September the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the State Office of Child Protective Services CAN be sued for not doing its job of properly protecting children in need. The case came to the attention of the courts when "parents in several families whose children were forcefully and wrongfully removed from their homes sued the agency for a violation of their family rights."
Dr. Alicen believes that "legislation of professional standards and oversight is just around the corner."
For further information about her research, or about the work of the CPS
coalition in Vermont, please contact:
Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D.
RD 2 Box 2006
Montpelier, VT 05402
(Editor's note: Jacqueline Haessly attended the conference as a representative from NCFR.)