MONTPELIER – Vermont's new child safety law shifts the state's priority in protecting children to their well-being from an imperative to reunite them with their families, officials said Monday during the governor's bill-signing ceremony at his Statehouse office.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, after signing the bill, handed the pen to the family of Jordan Preavy, a former Milton High School football player, who took his life one year after he was hazed by teammates. School officials maintained they did not have enough information under the law to report the hazing.
"Thanks for all your great work," he told the family members before the signing. Now abuse reports must be filed with both police and the Department of Children and Families within 24 hours.
The workings of Vermont's child protection system drew close scrutiny on several fronts last year, including after 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski died in April.
The new law was written after a special legislative committee took testimony starting last summer and continued into the legislative session.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said legislators heard from more than 1,000 witnesses who highlighted various flaws in Vermont's child protection system.
Sears, co-chair of the special committee, said Monday the new law changed the rules that required officials to consider as the first option reuniting a child with his or her family. He said it will bring about consistency in how child protection laws are applied across the state.
"The bill allows the court to consider the best interest of the child first," Sears said. "It doesn't mean that a child wouldn't go back with their mother or father, or whomever, but it does set up a different sort of expectation that what we are going to be looking at is the best interest of the child."
The state Department for Children and Families also has hired 18 more social workers and 12 more administrative personnel to keep better track of the cases of at-risk children.
Shumlin said the measure makes it easier now for social workers, police, the courts and others involved in the care of children to communicate about specific cases. It also calls for more care in monitoring children who have been reunited with their families after the state gets involved.
"It breaks down silos," Shumlin said of the new law. "When we look back on the tragedies we faced and asked 'what did we do wrong,' one of the answers was very clear, we weren't communicating enough about each case to give the resources that we have the ability to succeed."
Shumlin noted that a recurring problem encountered by the state's child welfare agency is addiction to heroin and other opiate drugs that makes it impossible for some parents to care for their children.
"This bill does not mean that Vermont will succeed every time," Shumlin said. "It just doesn't. And as I said, with heroin addiction, the challenges are tougher, the offenses seem to be increasing, not decreasing."
Second-degree murder charges are pending against Dezirae's stepfather and Peighton's mother. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The 24-hour reporting requirement was initially part of a separate bill introduced by 30 legislators led by Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton. It was incorporated in the child protection. Hubert's bill was prompted by State's Attorney T.J. Donovan saying he believed he would be unable to obtain convictions for failure to report based on the current law.
The 150-member House gave the Preavy family a standing ovation when the bill was introduced in January.
Preavy was one of three Milton High School football players that sex crime police say were assaulted with either a pool cue or a broomstick during hazing rituals for newer players in 2011 and 2012.
Preavy transferred to Milton as a junior and was assaulted after trying out for the football team. He was held down by one player and attacked by another with a broomstick, police said. The 17-year-old shot himself in August 2012 as he started his senior year on the team.
Five former Milton football players were charged and convicted for crimes in the hazing case. One received a short jail sentence, while the others lesser penalties.
His family maintains the humiliating hazing by his teammates played a role in his suicide. Preavy was a talented athlete who also played goalie on the Under 19 Quebec National Field Lacrosse team.
Source: New Vermont Law