The matter of guardianship is closely tied with the state's opiate addiction problem, experts say, because as more parents seek treatment for substance abuse, they are also often unable to care for their children.
The proposed law aims to streamline procedures in situations that can be emotionally charged, legally complicated and nearly impossible for parents to navigate without help.
The bill, H.581, is sponsored by Rep. Sandy Haas, P/D-Rochester.
The House committee on Tuesday heard testimony on the bill, which lays out procedures for when a parent, voluntarily or involuntarily, relinquishes control of his or her child.
"Partly with the advent of the serious substance abuse issues, that has put significant pressure on the minor guardianship proceedings," said Amy Davenport, chief administrative judge for the Vermont courts.
Davenport was a member of the study committee that in 2012 produced a report about minor guardianship that led to H.581.
In fiscal year 2011 there were 2,843 minor guardianships under the jurisdiction of the probate court, according to the report. That same year, 456 petitions were filed for minor guardianship.
Trine Bech, executive director of Vermont Parent Representation Center and a member of the study committee, said the bill will clarify the guardianship process and help families understand their rights.
"You are powerless when you don't know and you enter into something with legal consequence without understanding what you're doing," Bech said.
This bill deals entirely with guardianship situations in which the state, specifically the Department for Children and Families, is not a player.
The bill declares that a child's best interests are served by remaining at home. If that is not possible, the proposed law specifies how a person seeking guardianship must file a petition, including different procedures for when a guardianship is consensual or nonconsensual.
The bill also clarifies when the guardianship proceeding would fall under family court jurisdiction, rather than probate court, and specifies the circumstances under which hearings should take place and whether attorneys must be appointed.
The court must appoint an attorney for the child if the child will be called as a witness. In all other cases, the court may appoint an attorney, according to the bill draft.
The bill requires that in both consensual and nonconsensual guardianship a court issue a "family plan" that includes a long-term plan for the child to return to his or her parents and how often they can visit in the meantime.
The guardian, meanwhile, would be required to file an annual status report with the probate court accounting for funds received and spent on behalf of the child. In many cases, a parent's social services benefits change if they relinquish guardianship, Bech said.
The bill also outlines procedures for terminating a guardianship. Parents may file for termination at any time. The burden of proof is on the guardian to prove why a parent is incapable of caring for his or her child, the bill says.
Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families (DCF), said she supports the bill.
Walcott said there have been problems in situations of abuse or neglect where the state should have stepped in; instead, social workers encouraged families to file for guardianship.
Under the bill, DCF must establish a policy whereby social workers agree not to encourage families to establish a minor guardianship in situations where it is more appropriate for the state to take control.
"We had perhaps wandered too far toward family empowerment," Walcott said.
Walcott chaired the study committee that produced the 2012 minor guardianship report. In contrast to the 2,843 minor guardianships, she said there are approximately 960 children in state custody.
"I think that this bill goes a long way to really bring these provisions into this century in a way that's going to serve the best interest of children," she said.
Others, however, think the bill doesn't go far enough.
Sandi Yardow works at K.I.N. - K.A.N. Vermont, a group that helps families connect to social services. She said third-party organizations need a role in the process, to help both guardians and parents.
Yardow said she frequently acts as a mediator between guardians and parents, and helps parents navigate other social services systems, such as opiate treatment center waitlists, so they can get be reunited with their children faster.
"Somebody has to be helping mom and dad," Yandow said.