By Gavin Boyles
The State of
— via the Department for Children and Families — maintains a registry of people about whom it has substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect. The registry is not wholly public but is available to entities that serve children and vulnerable adults, to aid them in making hiring decisions. DCF is required by statute to place a person on the registry when it has substantiated a report that he or she placed a child at “substantial risk of harm.” Before being placed on the registry, however, one may contest DCF’s substantiation decision at a hearing before a neutral administrative reviewer with no prior involvement in the case. That decision, in turn, may be appealed to the Human Services Board. And that decision can be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. It’s like baklava, but with appeals instead of delicious layers of phyllo dough. Vermont
Here, the underlying act was mother’s decision to leave her sleeping three-year-old in an unlocked, unheated van for over an hour at 3:00 a.m. on a March night when the temperature was hovering around freezing. That lone ncident was the only act alleged to have placed the child at substantial risk of harm.
The decisions here were thus:
- DCF: substantiates report;
- Administrative reviewer: agrees that R.H. should be placed on the registry based on the single egregious act;
- Human Services Board: reverses, concluding that R.H.’s conduct since the single incident showed that she should not be included on the registry;
- SCOV: reverses and remands.
During the long and winding road this appeal took to the SCOV, a family court judge had also determined that mother had, by leaving her daughter in the van, “abused” her. File that away for later.
This is one of those discursive opinions that takes each possible rationale, examines it, talks it over for a while, and then decides that it’s really neither here nor there. It is a very nice primer, however, on DCF’s responsibilities for receiving and adjudicating reports of abuse and neglect.
The holdings, ultimately, are several: (1) the Board should review the administrative reviewer’s decision de novo and the SCOV should review the Board’s decision with a great deal of deference; (2) the various tribunals chewing on substantiation questions (as distinct from expungement questions) must look only at the events that were alleged as a basis for substantiation, and not at any subsequent acts; (3) the Board erred in not applying the standard announced in a DCF policy document concerning isolated egregious acts of neglect as a basis for substantiation; (4) the family court’s determination that the van incident was “abuse” did not preclude mother from arguing to the Board that she had not placed her daughter “at substantial risk of harm,” because the family court did not apply the “isolated egregious acts” standard that the Board should apply on remand.
If this doesn’t slake your thirst for Human Services Board procedure, head on over to Betsy Catlin’s summary of In re R.P. & B.P., which concerns a narrower question: whether the Board’s hearing officer can order DCF to file an additional offer of proof as a prerequisite to holding a fair hearing.