Office of the Child Advocate (H.680)
The United States Ombudsman Association (USOA), defines the public sector ombudsmen as “an independent, impartial public official with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports” The USOA has established a set of best practices guidelines for Ombudsman offices: (1) An Ombudsman office should be independent- free from outside control or influence; (2) An Ombudsman should be impartial- receive and review each complaint in an objective and fair manner, free from bias, and treat all parties without favor or prejudice. (3)The Ombudsman should control confidentiality- have the privilege and discretion to keep confidential or release any information related to a complaint or investigation; and (4) The Ombudsman should create a credible review process of complaints- perform his or her responsibilities in a manner that engenders respect and confidence and be accessible to all potential complainants.
It is our belief that an Office of the Child Advocate is needed to ensure that all Vermont children are safe and their basic needs are met. We also believe that children deserve the opportunity to seek a skilled, caring adult who will listen to them and advocate on their behalf. We know that high levels of poverty complicate work with families. We also know that in Vermont in 2012, 15.5% of children under the age of 18 lived in poverty, 21.0% of children under 6 lived in poverty. These strained family systems are further taxed by a state that is responding to federal cuts in valuable assistance programs. Vermont’s safety net continues to shrink at a time when the demand for support has increased. An ombudsman is needed to identify gaps in services, advocate for individual children, and identify/create system change if/when this overloaded net breaks.
Statement of the Issue/Problem:
An internal case review of 300 cases from DCF indicated that 94% of acceptance decisions were rated as accurate. 78% of decisions on non-accepted reports were rated as accurate. These numbers indicate that the majority of the errors made stem from inaction. There is not a published external review of cases, which could be a valuable way to illuminate shortcomings of the current system or validate the current process.
Most would acknowledge that the majority of people in the human services field have are caring, hardworking individuals who genuinely want to serve children well. In a time where Results Based Accountability has become the standard, Mark Friedman’s book title Trying Hard Isn’t Good Enough rings true. An Ombudsman can bring light to unintentional holes in the system (and mend these holes), which will build confidence that the system we have in place is serving our children as intended.
Conversations with community members and organizations indicate that there is a lack of clarity about the appeal process at DCF. It is a common belief that only the guardian has the right to appeal decisions, which may not always be in a child’s best interest. Having a widely publicized Office of the Child Advocate, would give children, families, and community members an independent avenue for sharing concerns and talking through outcomes.
Due to confidentiality rules, it is not possible for an independent person to access information. This lack of access to information makes it difficult to say with confidence whether Vermont’s children are consistently receiving adequate services. Stories from the community would indicate that the system is stressed which has caused inconsistency in service delivery. Without access to files, it is unclear whether this
Are their current gaps in services for children in Vermont?
Nationwide, government systems that serve and protect children have not consistently met intended goals. Children continue to fare poorly despite considerable public investments. Some would argue that Vermont is different, but many share that there are areas where improvement is needed. Some of the most cited areas that have been reported to have gaps in services/ inconsistent services are: child welfare, juvenile justice, kinship care, education, people needing assistance navigating multiple systems, and education.
Conflicts of interests were identified as a barrier to consistent services, particularly related to the Child Welfare system. One example shared was that social workers often try to maintain positive relationships with schools or other entities, which is important. Yet, when these social workers have concerns with specific services related to one of the children in their care, they balance the need of the individual child with the relationship with the school (which may affect other children they work with).
The largest and most consistent concern that was raised was the lack of access to information coupled with the lack of opportunities to file complaints and share general concerns. Poor customer service was discussed as particularly alarming in relation to the need for trauma informed services. It was also mentioned that this person should also be able to advocate for system change when there isn’t a solution to inadequate care within the current system.
How would an OCA enhance service delivery for youth in Vermont?
Initial research has shown that many individuals, groups, and organizations support the formation of an office in Vermont. They site the need for the office to be properly staff and have access to information that is otherwise challenging to obtain. There is strong support for children and youth to have a person to contact confidentially who can listen to them and advise them of their legal rights.
What structure would be most effective?
Instilled with the authority to investigate citizen complaints and broad access to information, an Office of the Child Advocate can identify shortcomings of government services and provide solutions to better serve the public, especially children.
This office should hold systems accountable and promote efficiencies and effectiveness of services funded by taxpayers. During a time of shrinking resources, the role of the advocate is more critical than ever. This office can monitor the impact of service and workforce cuts on the consistency and quality of services to children and identify failures before the affect children’s outcomes.
Voices for Vermont’s Children’s interest in an OCA:
State’s children’s ombudsman offices are being established nation wide in response to tragic failures, most commonly child fatalities. Vermont is the only state in New England without an Office of the Child Advocate. Each Office is tailored to the unique needs of the State that adopted it. They each report that they do what they were designed to do. The Offices that are independent and have the ability to perform Ombudsman functions as well as advocacy work have reported the most progress towards creating a system that functions well for children (other offices report the ability to share information and coordinate services but cite frustration when their ability to create change is limited).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Policy Option:
Families and service delivery systems are each stressed due to the economy. The recession has increased the need for government supports, services, and protections within family units. Similar economic stressors have also caused state and federal budget cuts that have negatively impacted service delivery. As system and family stresses collide, there is a heightened need for oversight to ensure children’s needs are being met despite decreasing resources. Ombudsman offices provide that kind of oversight.
An Office of the Child Advocate is not a panacea. If properly funded and advertised, it would create an opportunity for children and youth to be heard. It will also create an additional voice for families and concerned community members to share their observations.
Sources Consulted or Recommended:
National Conference of State Legislators (NCLS) website.
Other State Offices (Maine, NH, CT, MA, online research of RI)
Kids Count Data
Pulling Back the Curtain: State Children’s Ombudsmen at Work (Moira Kathleen O’Neill)