Child abuse and the secrecy surrounding the children who become “cases” in the hands of child welfare agencies are in the spotlight in the State of Vermont due to an investigation into the state’s laws and policies on child abuse. The investigation is charged with learning about the activities of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) in Vermont.
The investigation was prompted by the death of two young children who were in the custody of the DCF and then were returned home to their families. One child is suspected to have been murdered by her mother and the other child is suspected to have been murdered by a stepfather. The question about these cases revolves around the choices mady by DCF to return the children to their homes, even though they were not safe places for the children.
The two cases that instigated the investigation have raised the issue of child abuse and secrecy. It has been suggested that the DCF activities that result in children becoming harmed rather than protected are hidden by the cloak of confidentiality. Because of concern for protecting the privacy of children, no information about the child’s welfare is provided to anyone other than the parents of the child. Even though the parents might be the perpetrators of child abuse, they are the only people allowed to have information from the DCF about the child. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, or brothers and sisters are barred from obtaining information about the child, even though they may be the best advocates for the child’s welfare.
The cloak of confidentiality may put the child in a worse situation because someone who is not the biological mother or father could be a safer place for a particular child or could be the conduit for the child to ask for help, but they are kept in the dark and the child is separated from them. The isolation of the child, which is touted to be for its benefit, is actually what is perpetuating the harm.
Protests against the Vermont DCF were held shortly after the death of one of the toddlers. Reports from the protests have indicated that family members of the little girl knew of instances of abuse and feared for the child’s well-being. Friends and family members were reported to have begged the courts to remove the girl from her mother’s home but their allegations of abuse were ignored.
There is a need for confidentiality about child abuse in order to protect a child from undue publicity as well as prying and meddling people. It must be recognized, however, that isolating a child from those who know their situation and could advocate for them will only serve to increase the chances that the child will be harmed. Keeping relatives and friends in the dark and using blanket rules to separate the child from all others besides the mother and father has been shown to be harmful to children that have abusive parents. Certainly the DCF of Vermont and similar child welfare agencies have the ability to determine who is a good advocate for the child, or at least make the effort. The investigation in Vermont is a step in the direction of removing the cloak of secrecy that surrounds child abuse.
Opinion by Margaret Lutze