- MATTHEW THORSEN
- Sears leaves a DCF public meeting in Winooski
The Political Is Personal: Sen. Dick Sears Protects Vermont Children Sen. Dick Sears was born in prison to a mother he never knew. The Bennington County Democrat lived in three foster homes before he was adopted. Later in life, he spent decades searching for his biological family. He eventually found a long-lost sister living in Massachusetts — and the two have become close.
A senator for 22 years, 18 of which he’s chaired the influential judiciary committee, Sears has been a source in countless news stories about victims of unfortunate circumstances. But until he shared his own story with Seven Days, few knew how relevant his personal history was to his legislative work.
Case in point: This summer, Sears and the Committee on Child Protection hosted public sessions across the state to hear from Vermonters who interact with the Department for Children and Families — the same state agency that would have concerned itself with his welfare when he was a child.
Two toddlers were killed in their homes earlier this year while under DCF supervision. Sears is in charge of coming up with legislation to better protect kids who are as vulnerable as he once was.
UPDATE: Sears said the Seven Days story surprised some lawmakers who have served alongside him for years. Lots of old friends — and people he counseled during his 30-year stint at a youth residential center — tracked him down. “It’s been really positive,” he said of the reaction.
Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding DCF has intensified. No report yet from the Committee on Child Protection, but two outside reports issued in recent months have taken the agency to task for bungling the two child-fatality cases and suggest dozens of substantive improvements.
Sears said that he and Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) plan to unveil a bill in early January designed to reform DCF and improve the state’s ability to protect endangered children. It promises to be one of the most-discussed pieces of legislation in the session. While they are still honing the specifics, Sears said, the bill seeks to ensure that DCF caseworkers do not prioritize family reunification over the health of a child, and that supervisors will have more time to monitor their caseworkers, among other initiatives.
Sears said he hopes to wrap up committee hearings in January and have the legislation on the Senate floor by early February — a relatively breakneck pace for such a major bill. But Sears, a wily Statehouse operator, is confident he can get it passed.
“I think the overall concept is fairly universally supported,” he said. “There are certain functions of government that we have to provide, and one of them is protecting kids.”
Sears has a couple of other matters to tend to before the legislative wrangling begins. Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he plans to head to Massachusetts to visit his sister.