Legislative Update – May 7, 2015

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May 7, 2015 No Comments ›› maxinegrad

bigstock-statehouse-springHouse Action

S.9 Child Protection:

The House Passed S.9. The bill is a result of a legislative committee that met last summer and fall to investigate Vermont’s child protection system after the deaths of two toddlers who had been in contact with the Department for Children and Families. It passed the Senate last month.

My committee, House Judiciary, dedicated most of the last few weeks on this important bill. First, we added to the definitions of suspicion of sexual abuse the possession of child pornography. This was a request of DCF and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO). According to the AGO, persons who possess child pornography have a clear sexual interest in children. The cases the AGO investigate often involve video files of the sexual abuse of young children – these are records of serious crimes being committed and should be accounted for.

Additionally, we strengthened the current law on mandatory reporting and risk of harm. We took testimony from Chittenden County State’s Attorney that current law prevented him from prosecuting Milton School District employees accused of failing to report hazing allegations of a Milton teen who later committed suicide. I took testimony from the teen’s family about how critical it was to strengthen the law. The new language addresses the concern that mandatory reporters have been undertaking their own investigations to determine if they have reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused. In our bill, we require reporters to report “any” information, as opposed to “information the reporter believes.”

The major difference between the bill that passed the Senate and the one that passed the House is the absence of a new crime of cruelty to a child or failure to protect, which was the focal part of the Senate version. My committee heard very compelling testimony that a new crime with long prison terms and high fines will not deter persons from failure to protect children. Many of the cases DCF is seeing are a result of increased substance abuse, often with the presence of domestic violence. Front-end help with addictions, parenting, and domestic violence is what is needed.

As I stated to the press: “Changing the mandated reporter section is perhaps as powerful, more powerful in terms of protecting children, than perhaps a new crime.”

I do understand prosecutors’ concern that current law does not provide a tool for knowing who to charge when law enforcement encounters a situation where a young, non-verbal child has been neglected or abused, two people are present at the scene, and each blame the other. Prosecutors say in those cases a “failure to protect” law is needed.

There was strong consensus in my committee that “failure to protect” laws could result in the prosecution of the wrong people.

As I stated in a press interview: “Failure to protect laws often lead to the conviction of victims of domestic violence, and not the perpetrators of the abuse.” Domestic violence advocates stated that victims do not choose not to protect their children by, i.e. staying in an abusive relationship, but instead are trying to save their and their children’s lives.

The bill will go to conference committee. Conference committees are appointed when the House and Senate do not agree on what the other body passed. The committee consists of 3 members from each chamber who try to negotiate a bill that both bodies will accept.

Other House Work

The Waitsfield Charter is up for approval this week.

H.355 re: Licensing of Foresters 

House Government Operations is recommending that the profession of Forester become a licensed profession through the Secretary of State’s Office. Currently, Vermont and Rhode Island are the only New England states that do not have forester licensing. Witnesses testified in favor of licensing to:

  • Maintain the credibility of the forestry profession.
  • Help landowners by ensuring that foresters have a minimum level of education and qualification for practicing forestry in Vermont.
  • Promote continuing education in the forestry field, and help foresters stay informed on evolving best management practices and ethical issues surrounding representing landowners.
  • Ensure that foresters understand the applicable regulations that relate to harvesting activities to better protect landowners.
  • Provide a basic level of accountability for the profession. For instance, landowners who are harmed by non-professionals posing as foresters will have some level of recourse.

Commissioner Mike Snyder testified in favor of the bill, noting the importance of the profession as the state begins to confront forest fragmentation challenges.

Other Possible Action

Same Day Voter Registration:

The Election Day Voter Registration bill lifts the deadline for voter registration. Rather than having to submit an application by 5:00 p.m. the Wednesday prior to an election to be added to the checklist, a resident would be able to submit an application for addition to the checklist at his/her polling place during the hours of voting at that polling place. No proof of identification, beyond that required on the application form, is necessary.

This bill was brought forward by the Secretary of State and has the strong support of his office. It is also supported by the Campaign for Vermont, AARP, and VPIRG. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have enacted Election Day Registration, three as long ago as the early 1970’s. Another fourteen are currently contemplating it. A theme common to those in support of the bill has been the removal of an arbitrary barrier to exercising a basic right of citizenship.

The town and city clerks have varying opinions about the bill. The Legislative Committee of the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association (VMCTA) supported the bill as amended in the Senate.

 

Please stay in touch: mgrad@leg.state.vt.us and 828-2228 or 496-7667.