MONTPELIER — Legislation aimed at boosting the state’s child protection laws was pulled from the Senate floor Tuesday to allow senators more time to understand the bill.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, requested the one-day delay in order answer persistent questions from constituents about the bill’s contents. It’s undergone several changes since the Legislature reconvened in early January.
A special legislative panel, the Committee on Child Protection, was formed last year after the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February 2014, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April 2014. Both were ruled homicides, and murder charges have been filed against family members.
The panel spent the summer and fall holding hearings and ultimately drafted S.9, a comprehensive bill to address issues in Vermont that were identified after hearing from dozens of witnesses. The legislation has been changed throughout the course of the legislative session to address concerns with the original proposal.
But those changes have not been made clear to the public, or have been misconstrued, Sears, who serves as co-chairman of the special legislative panel, said at a caucus Tuesday. He said he pulled the bill Tuesday to address those questions at the caucus. The bill is now expected to be up for preliminary approval on Wednesday.
“Somehow, in this building, frequently, things are misconstrued,” he told fellow lawmakers.
At issue is the creation of a felony crime that carries a 10-year prison term. The “failure to protect” proposal would make it a felony if a parent or caregiver failed to protect a child. Sears said it would enhance a similar misdemeanor crime already on the books in Vermont.
The new law would apply to people if a person “knows or reasonably should have known” that a child was in danger of suffering death, serious bodily injury or sexual abuse. People could be held criminally liable if they fail to take action to prevent such danger or if their failure to act was a cause of harm to child.
The proposed felony law was included at the behest of Attorney General William Sorrell.
“A lot of testimony, particularly from the attorney general in the summer and fall, focused on Vermont’s lack of a law called failure to protect. Twenty-nine other states have failure to protect statutes,” Sears said. “As introduced, admittedly, the section of failure to protect a child was very broad. The new crime would only apply to a carefully limited range of conduct.”
Sears said Tuesday that his committee has “substantially narrowed the scope of the crime and added affirmative defenses.” The law is modeled after one in place in Hawaii, and the affirmative defenses against the law were added to help prevent abuse of the law.
The legislation originally included references to illness and pain in the section pertaining to the proposed felony. That language caused blowback from a range of people, included those who thought it might create criminal liability for parents who opt to skip vaccinations for their children under existing exemptions in Vermont law.
Sears said the legislation now provides for situations where a parent or caregiver “makes a reasonable decision not to provide medical care or treatment.”
“That’s an affirmative defense. Some want a specific statement against vaccinations in there that the failure to vaccinate would not result in a conviction,” he said.
Sears said the language included in the bill protects the rights of parents who do not want to vaccinate their children.
“Could a state’s attorney charge somebody? I suppose anything is possible, but pretty highly unlikely,” he said. “It’s certainly not the intent here to have somebody who fails to vaccinate their child and then gets measles to be charged with a felony.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and co-chairwoman of the Committee on Child Protection, said her committee recommended removing the references to illness and pain after receiving messages from constituents concerned that the bill would take away their rights.
“People saw the word illness and thought that they would be liable if they didn’t vaccinate their kids. We took out the word two or three weeks ago. They’re just late getting their emails out, I guess,” Ayer said. “We also took out the word pain because people want to be able to use corporal punishment on their children. So, we took that out as a standard.”
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which also reviewed the bill, said the legislation represents a first step in improving the state’s child protection laws. Additional work will be needed, she said.
“This bill does not accomplish everything and I think that as you hear from constituents and as you begin to understand what is in the bill and what it does do, that it is not a comprehensive response to everything that does need to be done,” Lyons said.
The final version of the Senate bill also stripped out language that could have led to felony charges for exposing a child to the possession, manufacturing, sale or cultivation of drugs. New language was added calling for a 30-year prison sentence and up to a $1.5 million fine if a child is present where methamphetamine is being made.
Included in the legislation is language that would shift the emphasis in child protection cases away from reunification of a child with a family to one that focuses instead on the best interests of the child. The Department of Children and Families came under fire after the deaths of Sheldon and Geraw for over-emphasizing reunification.
Sears said he expects the legislation to receive widespread support in the Senate before it heads to the House for that chamber’s consideration.