After Constituent Outcry, Senate Delays Child Protection Debate | Off Message

After Constituent Outcry, Senate Delays Child Protection Debate


Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)
Faced with a barrage of constituent complaints, the Vermont Senate delayed consideration of a comprehensive child-protection bill Tuesday. Instead of voting as scheduled, Senate Democrats huddled in a Statehouse meeting room at lunchtime to air the concerns they've heard and discuss their accuracy.

"I've gotten a couple of emails," Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) said wryly, prompting laughs from his colleagues.

Supporters of the bill, which would dramatically reshape the way the state protects children from abuse, complained that many of those flooding lawmakers with phone calls and emails have their facts wrong. 

"Somehow in this building, frequently, things are misconstrued, so that's part of what you might be hearing," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and helped draft the bill. 

Sears noted that his committee had scaled back the scope of the bill in the weeks since it was first introduced, and he wondered whether irate voters were responding to the current version or previous iterations. The chair sought to remind his fellow Democrats why they were considering the legislation in the first place: the deaths last February and April of two young children whose families were under state supervision.

"This is about a child-protection system that has significant problems," Sears said.

Tuesday's delay is likely just a hiccup in a lengthy legislative process. While several senators asked questions and raised concerns during the noon caucus, none expressed outright opposition. The bill is now slated for consideration on Wednesday.

Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) was among those who expressed concern about the breadth of the bill. She said several constituents — particularly those who work in schools — told her they're worried about a new "failure to protect" felony the legislation would create. 

In an earlier draft, those who "know or reasonably should have known" that a child is at risk of anything from bodily injury to exposure to drugs could be charged with the felony.

"As introduced, admittedly, the section of failure to protect a child was very broad," Sears said.

His committee subsequently narrowed the provision so that it only applies in instances when a child is in danger of death, serious bodily injury or sex crimes. A jury would have to find that "the person's failure to act is a proximate cause of the child suffering" such injury. And the new version protects from prosecution those who fail to act due to a "reasonable fear" that they themselves might suffer abuse or assault for contacting the authorities.

Lawmakers said some constituents had expressed concern that those who decline to vaccinate their children could be charged for failing to protect them from illness. But Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) argued that such fears were unfounded and that references to "illness and pain" had been excised from the bill. 

"It's not about vaccinations," Sears added. "It's certainly not the intent here to have someone who doesn't vaccinate their child who then gets measles to be charged with failure to protect."