Juvenile cases swamp Vermont courts; opiate addiction blamed
MIDDLEBURY — Members of the Addison County judiciary are warning that a dramatic surge in the number of juvenile cases is stretching court staff to the limit and in some cases deferring the legal process for adult defendants whose cases must, by state law, take a backseat to justice for young victims and defendants.
Local judges, prosecutors, attorneys and child advocates agree the surge in cases — involving neglected, abused and delinquent children, as well as those who court officials deem necessary to remove from their homes — can at least in part be attributed to the growing opiate addiction problem in the state and the deaths last year of two Vermont children under abusive circumstances.
“I’m just hoping there aren’t more children that get harmed because we can’t move as fast as we want, or we don’t have enough resources to do what we need to do,” said Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett.
The court system breaks juvenile cases into three categories:
• Children In Need of Supervision (CHINS). These are cases involving children (younger than 18) who have either been abused or neglected by their parent or parents, or who are truant or beyond parental control.
• Delinquency. These are children who have been accused of a criminal act.
• Termination of Parental Rights (TPR). Such cases involve removing a child from his or her parents’ custody when the parents have demonstrated that they are unfit to care for the child. The child can then be put up for adoption.
During calendar year 2014, the Addison County State Attorney’s office filed 114 new petitions for either CHINS or delinquency cases, according to Perkett. As of April 20 of this calendar year, the office had already filed 50 cases. The 50th case last year wasn’t filed until June; in 2012, that 50th case wasn’t filed until September. When Perkett joined the office in 2004, Addison County had been dealing with around 60 juvenile cases per year.
“The reality is, I know that more are coming,” Perkett said.
And it’s not just an Addison County problem.
According to the Vermont Judiciary Annual Statistical Report for Fiscal Year 2014:
• The number of CHINS petitions on the grounds of abuse or neglect of a child has increased by 62 percent since 2010. This represents the largest case filing increase in Superior Court. And for the first time in a decade or more, CHINS filings now outnumber delinquency petitions.
• In every year in the past five years, the Superior Court has disposed of fewer cases than the number of cases filed. The clearance rate in FY’14 was 74.6 percent, which represents the lowest clearance rate in the Superior Court. The backlog of CHINS cases continues to grow, with the steepest growth occurring in FY’14.
• Termination of parental rights petitions in juvenile cases have increased by 21 percent during the last five years.
• The number of CHINS cases statewide ballooned from 692 in fiscal year 2010, to 1,019 in FY’14, which is a 47 percent increase. The number of abuse-neglect filings increased by 62 percent between FY’10 and FY’15, representing the largest increase in any case type in any division of the superior court.
Local court officials, like Perkett, note that state law requires that juvenile cases take top priority within the legal system. Addison County currently has one judge — Robert Mello — to preside over all court business, including juvenile, criminal and civil cases. The spike in juvenile cases, coupled with the other dockets, has strained court officials to the limit.
“It means even less resources for judges to hear these cases, to expedite these cases, to move these cases forward and to have the time to deliberately think about these cases,” Perkett said.
“(Juvenile) abuse cases are like a funnel,” he explained. “I am at the middle of the funnel, and the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) is at the top. And the DCF need in Addison County has gone from two full-time investigators to three. And even with three full-time investigators, they are overloaded.”
And it’s primarily cases of neglect that are driving the current juvenile docket, according to Perkett. The calls might come from DCF, childcare providers, bus drivers or neighbors.
Neglect, Perkett said, can come in the form of a drug-addicted parent who leaves his or child at home to go out and meet with a dealer, and get high. It can be parents who drive under the influence of drugs with their children in the vehicle. Or it can be parents who have sub-standard housing (such as no heat during the winter) and are unwilling to accept resources to fix the problem. It can also involve parents with mental health issues who are unable to properly care for their kids. Then there are cases of injuries to children that cannot be satisfactorily explained by the parent(s).
In every juvenile case, the child, each of the parents, and the state are all entitled to an attorney.
“Everyone has the opportunity to be advised by a legal professional, but it also means you can have five lawyers in the room,” Perkett said. “It can slow things down.”
The emphasis in delinquent cases is on rehabilitation for the young offender, Perkett noted. And in CHINS cases, the goal is to do what is in the best interest of the child and hopefully reuniting the child with his or her family.
These are involved cases often requiring multiple hearings to resolve, officials said. That means a lot of court time.
Ten years ago, the Addison County Courthouse was reserving one morning per week for juvenile cases.
“This Tuesday was my third Tuesday in a row of a full day of juvenile hearings,” Perkett said. “This has grown to being more than half of what I do now.”
What that means is that Perkett and other county prosecutors have less time to work on adult criminal cases, which slows down the process for those defendants, he explained.
Perkett recently asked the county’s juvenile docket clerk how much hearing time she was still searching for to process juvenile cases.
“The answer was, she is still scrambling to find five-and-a-half hearing days or hearing time, outside of our regular Tuesdays,” Perkett said. “About a month ago, she was actually looking for 15 full days.”
A clearance rate reflects the number of cases closed/disposed within the court, divided by the number cases that have been filed. A clearance rate below 100 percent indicates a court has more cases than it can handle and therefore accumulates a backlog. The clearance rate for CHINS cases statewide in fiscal year 2014 was 74.6 percent.
Consequently, other non-juvenile cases sometimes have to be pushed back. And as the old legal maxim goes, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Last fiscal year, the Addison County State’s Attorney’s Office was granted an additional half-time position in recognition of the larger workload.
“That has taken some of the pressure off, but for every case our new deputy (Ashley Hill) is able to take, it seems they fill in with another juvenile case,” Perkett said.
The Legislature formed a committee last year following the deaths of children Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw, to pinpoint flaws within the human services and justice system that might have contributed to the tragedies.
Perkett was one of those who provided the committee feedback.
“What we told them was there is no magic bullet for this, except to get more resources involved,” Perkett said. “The most disappointing thing to come out of this legislative session is that plea for more resources clearly hasn’t been heard. I am not seeing any leadership on that issue in the Legislature and I am certainly not seeing any leadership on that from the governor.”
Perkett fears the juvenile case logjam could get worse, before it gets better.
Andrea Grimm is the director for the Middlebury-area district of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF). The DCF, among other things, investigates reports of alleged child abuse in area households and refers some of those cases to the county court system.
Vermont DCF has a phone line people can call to report on alleged cases of child abuse or neglect. Those calls are screened by a supervisor, and the most solid and verified reports are distributed among the DCF’s 12 district offices for follow-up. In such cases, a DCF social worker will meet with the family, according to Grimm.
Statewide, the DCF received 15,756 calls in 2012; 17,460 in 2013; and 19,293 in 2014, according to Grimm. Not all of those calls proved worthy of follow-up, she noted.
The Middlebury-area district office fielded 607 calls in 2012, of which 191 were accepted. In 2013, the number of calls rose to 690, of which 254 were accepted. In 2014, Grimm’s office received 761 calls, of which 282 were accepted.
“We have certainly seen an increase in the number of calls for concern here in Addison County,” Grimm said.
DRUG ABUSE CRISIS
She attributed the surge in cases to the growing opiate addiction problem in the Green Mountain State, as well as a growing number of abuse/neglect calls in the wake of the 2014 deaths of two Vermont children — Dezirae Sheldon and Peighton Geraw.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of families with whom we work who are involved with opiates,” Grimm said. “That is woven throughout many of the cases that we investigate, and also many of the cases that we open for ongoing supports and services.”
As of Tuesday, there were 78 children in state custody in Addison County, according to Grimm.
“That’s a higher number than we have seen in the past couple of years,” she said.
Grimm’s office has nine social workers, three of whom are also investigators. The Middlebury-area social workers each carry around 19.3 cases, which is tied for the highest number of cases among the 12 DCF district offices, according to Grimm.
“As a state, we are trying to get to a point of having 12 to 16 cases per social worker,” Grimm said.
She praised her staff for being hard working and professional. And Grimm added that were it not for the level of good collaboration between the DCF and local social service agencies, the outcome of some of the Addison County juvenile cases “might be different.”
The Middlebury law firm Marsh & Wagner P.C. has the primary juvenile defender contract for Addison County. This means it is assigned to represent children in CHINS and delinquency cases. The firm includes Pam Marsh, Jennifer Wagner and Jonathan Heppell. All three attorneys have been affected by the spike in juvenile cases.
As of last week, Marsh was carrying 36 active CHINS cases. Wagner’s caseload included 21 CHINS cases and 3 delinquency cases. Heppell was busy with 11 CHINS and 19 delinquencies.
Some of the cases involve children whose parents are actively using drugs and leaving supplies (like needles) within the reach of children. Marsh estimated 70 percent of CHINS cases involve drugs. Some involve parents with mental health issues. Others involve individuals with mental health and drug problems.
Marsh noted DCF will usually try to intervene first with drug-using parents before they bring a CHINS petition, to see if they are willing to accept treatment. If they are, DCF opens a family case and does not pursue court action. If the parents decline treatment, it ends up in the courts.
“In cases of neglect, there is usually something behind it,” Marsh said of drugs and other factors.
Some of the red flags are seen in schools, when some students arrive with dirty clothes, injuries and/or empty bellies.
“It’s amazing what the elementary schools try to do to help our kids,” Marsh said, referring to food and clothing reserves. But that kind of individual attention often ends when the child begins middle school, according to Marsh.
Schools also have a disciplinary process, she noted, one that can keep some delinquency cases from coming into the court system. Some schools — like Vergennes Union High School — have shown a willingness to handle minor infractions in-house, according to Marsh. But she said some of the other schools not only dole out punishment — such as suspensions — they refer the case to the legal system for a second dose.
“Mount Abraham and MUHS are more likely to make those referrals than VUHS,” Marsh said.
COMMITTED TO KIDS
Marsh agrees that the Geraw and Sheldon cases have contributed to the increase in reports leading to more juvenile cases being brought forward. She also believes Vermont’s growing opiate addiction problem has been a major contributor to CHINS cases.
“Some of it is random — people moving into the area,” Marsh said. “Our DCF office used to know almost every family before they came into the court system. Recently, a much higher percentage of cases are coming from people previously unknown to DCF.”
Marsh and her associates take on every juvenile case that comes through their door, as dictated by the fixed-rate contract they have had with the state since 1992. The cases are time consuming, often resulting in less time for the more lucrative work that the attorneys could be doing.
“The result is, we depend on the rest of our practice … to subsidize the amount we get paid by the state,” said Marsh, who often works nights and weekends to catch up with work.
“You can’t get it all in in a day,” Marsh said.
But thankfully, Marsh and her colleagues aren’t in the juvenile case work because of the money.
“A large reason we keep (the contract) is because I have such a love for juvenile law,” said Marsh, one of only two certified child welfare law specialists in the entire state. “I am very committed to the work, but it is a loss center for the firm. I think Jonathan and Jennifer share the commitment.”
Marsh would like to see more Addison County lawyers pick up juvenile cases as contracted work. She predicted that as high as the volume of juvenile cases has become, it could become even greater if the state Legislature passes bill S.9, which among other things would tighten the mandatory reporting requirements in suspected juvenile abuse cases.
“We need more contractors,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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