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People who spent time in Vt. foster care can't access their own records. Is it time to change that?

A photo of a person standing in a warehouse full of cardboard boxes.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
State Archivist and Chief Records Officer Tanya Marshall stands inside the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration in Middlesex. Marshall helped write a report that seeks to change the laws that prevent people who have spent time in foster care from looking at their own state records.

Adults who age out of Vermont’s foster care system are not allowed to look at the records that were produced while they were under the state’s care.

Current adoption laws have been changed so that when a child is adopted, those individuals are allowed to look back at reports from the juvenile court, as well as at investigations of abuse and neglect.

But Vermont State Archivist and Chief Records Officer Tanya Marshall says the law has never been updated to include people formerly in foster care who were not adopted.

“You know, I can access the records to help with record keeping,” Marshall said. “Other people can, but yet the one person who it most affects and is about, can’t.”

More from Vermont Public: For the thousands of Vermonters providing kinship care, a new film shows help is available

Marshall worked with the Department for Children and Families on a recent report that recommends changes to the state’s laws that would extend access to the records, which are under the care of Marshall’s office.

Vermont law is very explicit on who can open and read records having to do with children who’ve entered the foster care system.

State officials and law enforcement are allowed to see them.

The child’s parents, or attorneys, and even a person who is alleged to have abused or neglected the child, can request access to investigation files.

But there is nothing in the law that says the child, even when they become an adult, can see these records.

“It is their record. They own their life and their record. And that’s what we’re hoping, is to make it easier for someone to get their records.”
Brenda Hannon, Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage

“It is their record,” said Brenda Hannon, a spokesperson for the group Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which represents some of the survivors of the former Burlington children’s home that closed in 1974. “They own their life and their record. And that’s what we’re hoping, is to make it easier for someone to get their records.”

Hannon lived for almost 10 years at the St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington in the early '60s.

After interviewing 51 survivors, Vermont's Attorney General about two years ago found that there was constant emotional abuse at St. Joseph's, and that the state failed to protect the children who lived there.

Hannon said that while state investigators were able to look at official documents, the former St. Joseph's residents were hampered throughout the process by the limitations on access to the records.

And Hannon says other children formerly in foster care shouldn’t have to go through that.

A photo of cardboard boxes seen up close
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
A box of foster care placement records inside the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration in Middlesex.

“Hopefully it will make them understand their circumstances as to why they were in foster care, and emotionally help them come to terms with their younger life and lives,” Hannon said. “And be able to be better adjusted psychologically and emotionally to their past as a child. But also knowing what our past was helps us move forward into the future, I feel.”

John Magnago, who spent about seven years at St. Joseph’s, says the past few years, where he’s connected with other St. Joseph’s victims and learned more about what happened at the orphanage, has been healing for him.

He also supports changes to Vermont's law that would allow people who have been in foster care to learn more about their past.

“If the lawyers can get ahold of that information, and the criminals, whatever you call those, the abusers, I think the adopted person should absolutely have the first right, if any right, to their records,” Magnago said. “Not these abusers who are getting a lawyer to defend themselves, they know what’s going on. We don’t know what’s going on. You know our neighbors could have been the one who abused us. But we don’t have records. We can’t defend ourselves. We’re lost.”

Each child that’s placed in the foster care system has a different story, and history, and the accuracy and extent of past records can depend on the parents, how often they moved, and the laws that were in place when they entered the system.

“So there’s a lot of stuff that I believe is in my record, and in my files, that I don’t know, and will probably never know, unless I read it myself. And it would be nice to have an understanding of what actually happened, because I only remember bits and pieces."
Justyce Callisto, who was in the foster care system as a child

Justyce Callisto, who is 24 and lives in St. Albans, says there is a lot about their past they are trying to understand.

“I’ve gone through a lot of trauma, neglect, abuse, both physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually,” they said. “In the time that I was in foster care, I actually ended up moving 23 times, from foster homes to group homes to respite homes to inpatient facilities, because my mental health wasn’t the greatest.”

A black and white photo of a young person smiling.
Courtesy
Justyce Callisto says being able to access their records from the past will help them move forward.

Callisto has been trying to access what records are available, and says whatever little bits of the past are revealed, however hard they are to face, helps move things forward.

“So there’s a lot of stuff that I believe is in my record, and in my files, that I don’t know, and will probably never know, unless I read it myself,” they said. “And it would be nice to have an understanding of what actually happened, because I only remember bits and pieces. I don’t remember exact things anymore, which isn’t very beneficial for therapy. Because I am in therapy for everything that has happened to me, and for my mental health now, because of all of it. But I can’t really, you know, move on, move past it, when I don’t know all of it.”

For Callisto, it means everything from understanding more about their medical history, to trying to track down details about their past, and about the memories and stories that get lost among all of the moves and trauma of being in the foster care system.

“I think the biggest reason is we're adults,” they said. “We should have that choice, because it literally is a file about us, you know, and about our lives, and about what we went through. So I feel like it's just common sense that we should have access to it.”

Callisto says there is no way to retrieve the lost time, or go back. You can only go forward with the knowledge you have and the lessons you've learned.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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