MONTPELIER — A new law will update the way courts address the guardianship of minors for the first time in more than 60 years.
Tuesday morning, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law that clarifies when custody of a child can be taken from a parent and the circumstances that will allow a parent to regain custody.
The law outlines the circumstances under which custody can be awarded to someone other than parents — such as in the cases of terminal illness, military deployment or incarceration.
“As you know, in Vermont, we continue to face struggles with drug addiction and opiate addiction,” Shumlin said. “One of the things we don’t talk enough about in Vermont is the extraordinary struggles that children of addicted parents are put through as a result of their parent’s addiction.”
Judge Amy Davenport, administrative judge for trial courts, shared a judicial perspective on child guardianship.
“We see in the courts what happens to children when parents are incarcerated and we need to find a place for that child, sometimes with a family member and sometimes through (the Department for Children and Families), especially when the other parent is not around,” she said.
Davenport said the law is the first update of child guardianship rules since at least 1947, and possibly earlier.
Said Jill Evans, director of Women and Family Services for the Department of Corrections, 64 percent of the 1,500 inmates in Vermont have minor children. On any given day, incarceration affects approximately 1,600 children in the state, and more than 5,000 annually.
Numbers were not available for inmates incarcerated out of state.
“We have an opportunity to really look at what I think may have been an invisible group of people in the services that we have, and really to understand the trauma that children experience when they are separated from their parents,” Evans said.
That trauma can lead to negative outcomes later in life. Evans said children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner for DCF, said the new law “provides families with a set of tools that they can use to take care of their own family members.”
Keeping children with a family member is one of the chief goals of the new bill.
“The myth is that when a person is incarcerated, the kids go into foster care, and that’s just not true,” Evans said.
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