Friday, April 17, 2015

Child protection bill progresses

 

Paris Achen, Free Press Staff Writer8:53 p.m. EDT April 10, 2015

MONTPELIER – The House Committee on Human Services has unanimously advanced an overarching child-protection bill after scrapping a controversial provision that would have created a new felony crime of failure to protect a child.

The committee's adaptation of S. 9 would ratchet up fines for three existing crimes against children and provide a road map for scrutinizing and improving all the moving parts of the child-welfare system. The deaths of two toddlers whose families were in the state's child-welfare system provided the impetus for the legislation.

"Clearly, a bill cannot prevent child abuse and neglect, but this bill is a good start to an ongoing conversation about how to improve the system," said committee Chairwoman Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington.

The bill, approved in February by the Senate, now proceeds to the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee wrapped into its 55-page draft separate legislation (H-41) known as "Jordan's Bill" that is designed to help provide child protection from hazing.

The four-page bill, introduced by Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton came in the wake of the August 2012 suicide of Jordan Preavy, 17, of Milton. The former Milton High football player killed himself one year after a hazing ritual for the team.

Crimes against children

The committee scratched a section of the legislation that would have created a new felony crime — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — against any caregiver who fails to act when the person "knows or reasonably should have known that the child is in danger" of death, serious bodily injury or sexual exploitation.

Opponents of that provision argued the law could be used against a teacher, caseworker or babysitter who inadvertently overlooks information about a possible risk to a child.

"We felt it was far too punitive and would create more problems than it would solve," said Sheila Reed of Voices for Vermont Children.

David Cahill of the Vermont Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs said he will continue to ask for language in the bill that criminalizes knowingly or recklessly exposing a child to risk of bodily injury, death or sexual exploitation.

"It's pretty clear that the Judiciary Committee is the committee of final jurisdiction on the crimes," Cahill said. "They will be hearing from me, other law enforcement and the children advocacy community on what should or should not be criminalized."

In place of the new felony, the Human Services Committee doubled the fines for failure in mandatory reporting, neglect of duty by public officers and cruelty to a child. The mandatory reporting law applies to nearly 40 professions and requires them to report any suspected child abuse or neglect within 24 hours.

The committee kept another controversial provision that imposes a prison sentence of up to 30 years and a fine of as much as $1.5 million on people found guilty of manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a child. Methamphetamine production is particularly toxic to children.

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Members of the House Committee on Human Services talk after approving a child protections bill Friday. (Photo: PARIS ACHEN/FREE PRESS)

Halting hazing

More than two dozen legislators signed onto Hubert's anti-hazing bill, which received strong support from the Preavy family, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, Gov. Peter Shumlin and other key figures.

Hubert sought the four-page legislation after Donovan told about 200 Milton residents at a community meeting last fall that he was unable to file charges against members of the Milton School District because of what he believed was vague wording in the state reporting law.

Donovan's decision was poorly received by the community. An independent investigation is underway to determine if the Milton School District mishandled the case by not reporting the allegations when they learned about them.

Older football players subjected younger players to sexual hazing with a pool cue and broomstick. Five former Milton players were arrested and one still faces an attempted sexual assault charge.

Donovan told the House committee Tuesday that it was critical to mandatory reports to both law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families within 24 hours for anybody hearing about any possible child abuse.

"When in doubt, report it out," Donovan said while testifying by phone.

"We don't want the institution to do the internal investigation," Donovan explained. He noted the problems the Catholic Church faced nationwide by trying to handle allegations of sex abuse by priests.

Shumlin has said the state must provide the tools for prosecutors to be able to file cases to help protect children.

Hubert said he is pleased the critical needs proposed in the House under "Jordan's Bill" are moving forward. "It is unfortunate the legislation won't have his name on it," he said.

When "Jordan's Bill" was introduced in January the legislature gave a standing ovation to the Preavy family. Hubert called Preavy's relatives "a strong and courageous family" as he introduced the bill.

Improving the child welfare system

The bill tasks the Department for Children and Families with bringing consistency to policies and procedures and application of those policies and procedures.

The department also will be required to monitor for six months any household where parental custody has been restored.

The bill calls for a joint legislative child protection oversight committee made up of four senators and four representatives from committees on education, human services, judiciary and health and welfare.

The committee would be responsible for evaluating programs in the child-welfare system and determining deficiencies, and would report at least annually to the Legislature. It would sunset in June 2018.

A short-term working group, made up of judges and representatives from state agencies, also would study and make recommendations on improvements to the child-welfare system. It would begin its work in November.

In addition, the bill makes post-adoption agreements enforceable. The idea behind the change is that parents would be more willing to give up parental rights if they have an agreement with adoptive parents that they will be able to maintain some form of contact with the child, which could be as limited as receiving an annual photograph.

Such post-adoptive agreements already exist but without any enforcement mechanism.

Contributing: Staff Writer Mike Donoghue. Contact Paris Achen at 660-1874 and pachen@freepressmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/parisachen andhttps://www.facebook.com/ColTrends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/10/child-protection-bill-progresses/25611707/