Daily Archives: January 18, 2015

Here’s an idea: Lock up the social workers

Is it just me, or is this the early front-runner for Worst Legislative Proposal of the 2015 Session?

Anyone who cares for but fails to prevent harm to a child could be charged with a felony and face up to 10 years in prison under a new crime created as part of a long-awaited child protection bill unveiled Wednesday.

…The penalty for failure to protect a child would be up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to $20,000.

This proposal is part of a bill to impose “sweeping changes in the state’s child protection system. And maybe the rest of the package makes sense. But that?

We have a child protection system that’s understaffed, underfunded, and poorly organized, according to not one, but three separate studies of the Department for Children and Families, all carried out last year after the deaths of two young children under state supervision.

So we know that social workers are overworked and inadequately trained. And our response is to hang the Sword of Damocles over their heads?

Honestly, if I were a social worker, there’s no way in Hell I’d work for the state of Vermont if the threat of a felony conviction and incarceration were hanging over my head.

But that’s not the only problem with the “lock ’em up” solution to DCF’s problems.

The crime of “failure to protect a child” is vaguely defined: it’s when someone knows or “reasonably should have known” that a child is in danger. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn “said the new crime would likely be difficult to prosecute.”

No kiddin’.

The bill would not just apply to social workers, but to anyone having “custody, charge or care of a child.” Like, for example, babysitters.

Well, in the real world the chances of a babysitter facing a felony charge are probably remote. But why open that door with such a broadly-worded statute?

Speaking of broadly-worded:

Drug crimes include exposure to unlawful possession of a list of drugs, including narcotics and two or more ounces of marijuana.

Okay, you’re telling me that anyone with “custody, charge or care of a child” should be expected to know if that child’s parent has a couple ounces of weed stashed in a kitchen cupboard?



The “brains” behind this awful bill is Sen. Dick Sears, who seems to believe that the threat of prison will help social workers more than, say, adequate staffing and support.

“If there are kids who need protection and this system leads to protecting kids, what’s the problem?” he said.

Hmmmm. Maybe he’s got a point. But if we’re going to apply it to social workers, why not to DCF administrators who oversee a flawed system? If poor training and high caseloads led to a social worker’s mistake, shouldn’t they be held responsible?

How about the folks who made such a pig’s breakfast of Vermont Health Connect? Or the economists who spun out the overly-optimistic forecasts that left our state in a $100 million budget hole? Or maybe a Governor who dumps his signature initiative after vowing action through three election cycles?

Or lawmakers who know, or “reasonably should have known,” that they were passing budgets that starved DCF of the resources necessary to protect children?

“If there are kids who need protection and this system leads to protecting kids, what’s the problem?” he said.

You’re right. What’s the problem?

Felony crime, ten years in the slammer. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?