Kerri’s Story: CHINS Petition Dismissed Because of Strength-Based Legal and Social Support

Kerri’s Story – Kerri is a bright young woman with a world of promise before her. In this past year she has graduated from high school and secured full-time employment. She accomplished this while caring for her two year old daughter, Ellie, her pride and joy. This positive picture is a dramatic contrast to the chaotic life Kerri faced not so long ago. Her outlook was bleak as she struggled to manage an abusive relationship, the very real possibility of losing her daughter, and her desperate hunt for support. All this changed dramatically when Vermont Parent Representation Center (VPRC) entered her life.

“I could not speak for myself,” says Kerri. “VPRC spoke for me.”

Kerri’s relationship with her partner who was involved in substance abuse had become unsafe and threatening. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) had entered the picture and was advocating strongly that Ellie be placed in guardianship with her paternal grandmother.

Kerri was clear that the safety and well-being of her daughter were her top priorities but no one seemed to be listening. She was told that if she did not agree to the guardianship she would be facing a worse situation. DCF would file a “Child in need of care or supervision” (CHINS) petition to remove Ellie from her home. What they did not tell her was that having her return is controlled by others and a considerable challenge for any parent.

Further, she was told that if she went to court and lost, “things would get a lot worse.” During this time, the DCF worker never explained to her the legal and practical distinctions between a guardianship and a CHINS petition. She had never even made a visit to Kerri’s home! As Kerri says, “If she really wanted to know what was going on she would have come by,” and “what the paternal grandmother said is what mattered!”

VPRC Executive Director Trine Bech noted, “If the DCF worker had just come to see her at home she would have seen how hard Kerri was trying. Her home is neat, clean, comfortable and very well organized – a home anyone could be proud of. The toys for Ellie are developmentally appropriate.”

Kerri remained firm. “I didn’t want Ellie to think that I gave her up so I didn’t have to go to court,” she stated. Although she was  fearful she remained adamant and refused to consent to the guardianship.

At this point, Kerri called VPRC. DCF did in fact file a CHINS petition for the child a few days later. Because this petition took precedence by law over the guardianship petition, VPRC successfully moved to dismiss that petition. At the first hearing on the CHINS petition the judge, DCF, the child’s attorney and the child’s father’s attorney all advocated that only DCF custody and placement with the paternal grandmother would keep the then-two-year-old child safe.

VPRC, however, convinced the judge not to issue custody to DCF but rather to issue custody to Kerri with identified conditions to keep the risk low. VPRC then worked intensively with her to help her understand what she needed to do to keep her child safe, supported her progress and built on her strengths. Three months later, the CHINS petition was also dismissed before even reaching a merits hearing. Two months after that, Kerri had completed the safety goals and DCF closed her case.
Kerri says that if VPRC had not represented her, “the case would have been lost and my child would be with her paternal grandmother.” With VPRC’s intervention a child was saved from the unnecessary trauma of being removed from her birth parent and a safe and flourishing family environment was generated, not to mention saving the state’s taxpayers thousands of dollars!