You see the headline, watch the report, read more in the newspaper, and afterward you think how grateful you are to be the type of person to whom such a thing could never happen. You would never even think of abusing a child, let alone commit the act. Lucky for you, that means you never have to worry about getting visited by the authorities.
Unless you live in a state such as Vermont.
Vermont is one of the many states that has its own database known as the Child Protection Registry. It’s different than the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR), and in some ways, it’s worse. The stated purpose of Vermont’s registry, or Blacklist, as many call it, is to catalogue persons who have been substantiated for some level of abuse toward a child or other vulnerable person. Once on this list, an individual is no longer allowed to foster children, drive a school bus, work with the elderly, adopt, work in any capacity at a school, or provide any service in which they would have contact with vulnerable persons of any age. At first blush, this is a good thing; no one wants a child to be in contact with someone who has committed an egregious act against another child.
But, the Blacklist doesn’t just catalogue the worst of the worst. Unfortunately, it takes very little to be placed on the Child Protection Registry in Vermont. In fact, the rule is that, after an allegation the only requirement for a substantiation is that a “reasonable person” would believe that the incident could have occurred. There does not need to be a supporting investigation, witnesses do not need to be contacted, and investigators are discouraged from looking into the background of the accuser. That means, someone could accuse a person of sexual assault and, based only on the testimony given by that accuser, the “suspect” can be substantiated, as long as a “reasonable person” would agree that the act could have happened (follow us and watch for an upcoming article about who Vermont’s Department of Children and Families [DCF] considers to be “reasonable persons.” Hint: they have no specific answer!).
There are approximately 20,000 people on Vermont’s Blacklist. In a state with slightly more than 600,000 residents, that is a whopping 3% of the population. If the people on Vermont’s list populated their own town, it would be the second largest city in the state. There are those who would interpret that to mean Vermont is doing a great job to clean up the Element. Seeing as how only .002% of the entire population of the U.S. is on the NSOR, those wrongly entered into Vermont’s database wouldn’t be so quick to congratulate.
Take, for example, a person who associates with someone who is on the list. There is the case of a subject on the Blacklist originally from Vermont. This person began dating someone from an adjoining state who happens to have a child. DCF found out, and before long, the new partner got a letter in the mail stating that they, too, had been substantiated. The reason: for placing the child at risk of harm by associating with someone on Vermont’s List.
So, you see, contrary to what you learned in high school Civics and Government class, there are situations where there only needs to be a preponderance of evidence to formally accuse someone of a crime (as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt”). And, because the State of Vermont doesn’t want to discourage victims (alleged or actual) from reporting potential offenses, the accusers don’t have to worry about their backgrounds being dissected. The accuser could have made five similar reports in the past. But no one will know, because no one needs to check.
Once a person has been substantiated, an authority agent needs to seek that person out and officially provide the suspect with proper notification. Except, they don’t. In fact, all that needs to happen is that, within 14 days, the state must send a letter to the last known mailing address for the subject. If the act in question took place some time ago, and the subject has since moved and the forwarding expired, he (we’ll say “he,” because, well, you know…) may never find out. That is, until he tries to apply for a job as a school janitor or student mentor. If the agency to which the subject has applied files a request from Vermont DCF for a record check, only then will the subject learn of his fate.
The Catch-22 to that scenario is, a substantiated person has 14 days from the mailing of the original notice of substantiation to apply for an appeal. If he was never notified, or found out late, then his window will likely have closed. And the Vermont State Supreme Court has upheld that the Human Services Board, the independent agency that oversees such things, is not allowed to review cases that were not appealed through DCF first, regardless of the circumstances.
This addresses another problem with the system. Even a person who does receive timely notice and files to appeal will likely encounter an insurmountable obstacle. First, according to Vermont’s own statistics, 83% of cases brought for appeal are upheld, and only 16% are overturned. The remaining small fraction are reopened for further investigation.
Then, let’s say that a substantiation has also led to criminal charges. Now there are two ongoing cases that a subject must defend, because DCF will tell the person that the two cases are totally separate and unconnected. However, agreeing to an appeal places a new burden on the subject’s defense: as with any evidence, any information provided to the review board can be subpoenaed. This means that, regardless of proclaimed guilt or innocence, a person’s entire defense could potentially be wrapped in a nice neat package for the prosecution. Most of us would call that a violation of our right against self-incrimination (the beloved Fifth Amendment). To Vermont, its business as usual.
“Then, just don’t appeal until after the case against you is settled,” you say. If only. You see, once a subject requests a postponement of the review, Vermont has said, “Okay, then, we’ll go ahead and place you on the Child Protection Registry, anyhow, for now.” Most of us would call punishing someone before they are convicted of a crime a violation of our Constitutionally protected right to due process. Vermont calls this a normal business day, too.
That’s another problem. As stated above, if you didn’t appeal right away, there is no appeal for removal later – at least, not for 3-7 years, depending on the level of substantiation and regardless of the circumstances. Even if the criminal case against a subject is dismissed, dropped or the person is found “not guilty,” it is at DCF’s discretion whether they allow a person to be removed from the Blacklist.
Here’s the link to another great article that goes into more detail about this travesty. You’ll read that the evidence that DCF needs is even less than one would need in a civil trial (including hearsay), and that what DCF considers abuse, most truly reasonable people would consider laughable.
- Have you had an experience with a DCF-like entity?
- Does your story differ from what you read here?
- Does the cost of keeping kids safe outweigh the negative impact to the life of even one innocent person wrongly placed on the Blacklist?
Please share your comments and experiences with us (we encourage differing opinions). As always, please follow our blog in the sidebar to the left.