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?

6 thoughts on “Here’s an idea: Lock up the social workers

  1. Patricia Crocker

    Before this law, anyone providing care to a child was already legally obligated to report if there was suspicion of child abuse/neglect. In cases where a child was harmed, it seemed to me that the problems weren’t that people didn’t report it. The problem seemed to be more related to excessive beauracratic regulations. This bill doesn’t seem to get to that problem at all.

  2. chuck gregory

    Why, oh why, is the reaction of even reasonably good Republicans to inflict punishment after the fact rather than address the roots of the problem?

    The Sears proposal is also another example of ensuring yet more expenditures without raising the tax revenues needed to fund them. Of course, their solution to this will be to raid pre-kindergarten funding to pay for it.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      You know, I assume, that Sears is a Democrat. And this proposal came out of a legislative study committee, which presumably had a Democratic majority. This was either a Democratic proposal, or it received majority Democratic support in committee.

  3. Ted Scatchard, Shelburne.

    Thank you John for bringing this VT legislative output to our attention. The effective effort toward a more civil society is not really at the point of disfunction, but in the formative stages.

    The crimes and abuses must certainly be dealt with, but as escalation of problems are clearly happening, finding causes and early interventions is the need. We need to protect and help the potentially abused, and imagine the benefit if a potential abuser becomes a nurturer at an early age. No abuser, no abused.

    roe2009researchreport is something to google

    as is: we are built to be kind

    I suggest going to the research report first, because it explains the mission and results, including follow up after some years, of the Roots of Empathy social/emotional learning program that is well established. The book Roots of Empathy by Mary Gordon is in the Charlotte and Shelburne libraries, so you can request it at yours.

    Dave Yacavone, interviewed on the Mark Johnson Show at the conclusion of his service as Vermont’s DCF commissioner noted when asked what changes and added staff were needed, stated that the real effective efforts would be upstream. That is what I urge, and is an example that started nearly 2 decades ago.


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