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State Eyes Mediation In Quest To Reduce Vermont's Child Welfare Case Backlog

Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families Ken Schatz, in between two others
Taylor Dobbs
/
VPR file
Commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families Ken Schatz, at center in this 2014 file photo, said mediation could help resolve child welfare cases before they get to court.

An influx of child welfare cases in Vermont has the Scott administration looking for new ways to resolve allegations of child neglect.

Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, told lawmakers Thursday that family courts across the state have become overwhelmed with child welfare cases. He said he plans to ask the Legislature in January to fund an "alternative dispute resolution" program that could help resolve many of those cases before they get to court.

"We do think that that is a really important tool to have to try to enable some of these matters to move through the system in a more collaborative manner and hopefully have better outcomes and results," Schatz said Thursday.

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Support for a child welfare mediation program isn't limited to the Scott administration. A work group created by the Legislature to address the increasing number of child welfare cases in Vermont is also throwing its weight behind the proposal.

James Pepper, with the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said the work group has been studying a child welfare mediation program in Arizona. According to Pepper, of the 1,100 families that participated in the mediation program in one county in that state, 85% to 90% resolved their cases outside of court.

"It’s family-centric, family-led, it’s therapeutic," Pepper said, "and ultimately less traumatic for the children involved."

Pepper said the program has also saved Arizona millions of dollars in its court system.

"We do think that that is a really important tool to have to try to enable some of these matters to move through the system in a more collaborative manner and hopefully have better outcomes and results." — Commissioner Ken Schatz, Department for Children and Families

Marshall Pahl, with the Office of the Defender General, said child welfare cases often lend themselves to a mediation approach.

"A lot of time there's a lot of contention that’s brought on by sort of hard feelings about how the people were treated, how the case was brought, whether or not the process seems fair to people," Pahl told lawmakers. "And those are all things that are very, very mediate-able."

Schatz said his department will also likely ask lawmakers to increase funding for a home-visitation program, which he said could help reduce the number of new child neglect cases entering the system.

"Having the ability to refer families to sustained home visiting is an approach that we believe really can make a positive constructive difference, enabling families to address some issues related to opioids, related to other challenges and barriers, that sometimes lead to abuse and neglect," Schatz said.

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