AG urges more access to child protection proceedings
Attorney General Bill Sorrell has recommended that the Legislature relax confidentiality rules in family court.
In testimony before a committee looking at child protection Tuesday, Sorrell asked legislators to take a hard look at transparency within family court to determine which statutes protect privacy and which merely obstruct justice.
"Vermont is one of the states where the doors are locked" to the general public, Sorrell said, suggesting that courts should be open as a default, with exceptions in instances of abuse or other sensitive cases.
The attorney general spoke before the lawmakers as part of their ongoing effort to prepare recommendations to the Legislature in response to the deaths of two toddlers with ties to the Department for Children and Families this year.
In his hour-long testimony, Sorrell made several other recommendations to the committee, including that Vermont consider legislation to designate a child to be at "high risk" if child pornography is found in the home and emphasize the risks to children of an opiate-addicted caregiver. He also recommended that the court system conduct training and have minimum requirements for guardians ad litem, and to make it a criminal offense for a caregiver not to report child abuse or neglect, even if he or she is not the perpetrator.
Currently, non-juvenile family court proceedings such as divorce or custody cases are open, though the public is barred from cases that involve a minor and do not involve criminal charges.
Committee co-chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the committee, which will present its recommendations to the full Legislature next winter, hopes to act on some of Sorrell's proposals. Increasing transparency in family court makes sense, he said.
"We don't want to identify who gets abused or who've been neglected and all that, but at the same time, the cult of secrecy harms the ability of the public to have confidence in the department," Sears said.
The committee also took on issues of confidentiality on a variety of levels within the Agency of Human Services, including among departments in the agency, with the public and with community services providers.
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