Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Nancy Benoit, of Barre, speaks from her 14 years' experience as a foster parent during Tuesday's Department for Children and Families hearing at the State House in Montpelier. For story, see Page B1.
MONTPELIER — Fathers’ rights and better oversight were some of the issues addressed during a public hearing Tuesday about the Department for Children and Families.
During the past week, the Committee on Child Protection — composed of senators and representatives and created after the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February — has traveled the state from Manchester to St. Albans.
It has held nine hearings to listen to the public’s experiences and thoughts about the department.
Before the hearing, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the committee, discussed trends he has heard during the eight previous hearings.
Common themes have included family members expressing frustration that DCF won’t listen to their concerns, Sears said.
Other common topics included reunification of parents and children, confidentiality and how drug addiction relates to child custody.
Sears said his committee also heard from school officials with a common complaint.
“A number of mandated reporters talked about being ignored by DCF,” Sears said.
Sears said that at other hearings, some members of the public have expressed concern that they might face retaliation from DCF. He invited anyone who faces such an action to contact his committee.
Eyal Barsky, from South Burlington, described himself as a recently divorced parent who moved to Vermont from California. After his divorce, Barsky lost all rights to his child.
“The judges are great at the law, but they are not great at protecting the children and the children’s interest,” said Barsky, who called Vermont’s custody laws “outdated and archaic.”
“I believe that there are times when parents can’t care for children and children really don’t have a voice in the system,” said Nancy Benoit, of Barre, who has been a foster parent for the last 14 years.
The most vulnerable children are ones who are nonverbal, either young or disabled, and the system needs to develop protections for children who cannot speak for themselves, Benoit said.
“Often, nothing happens until the child becomes injured,” Benoit said.
Jane LaDue, of Hinesburg, said she is the parent of a son who was molested. LaDue said that when she suspected abuse, she reached out to DCF and received a letter back saying her concerns did not warrant investigation.
LaDue said that when her son grew up, he molested a child.
“What I’m trying to do is just break the cycle,” LaDue said.
Eric Audette, of Essex Junction, is the parent of three children — two who live with their mother. Audette said the mother has been evicted from her apartment, leaving her and the children essentially homeless, but he is unable to get custody of his children.
“My children have not been physically abused, but they’re mentally and emotionally abused as they bounce from one place to the next,” Audette said.
Like Barsky, Audette said the system does not treat fathers fairly.
“If I was doing any of this, it would have been an open-and-shut case a long time ago, because I’m a father,” Audette said.
Sheila Reed, associate director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, proposed the establishment and funding of an office to provide oversight of DCF. Vermont is the only New England state without such an office, Reed said.
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