- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont lawmakers appear to be shying away from legislation that would have established a “bill of rights” for the children of parents who are incarcerated.

A bill pending in the House calls for the establishment of eight specific rights, ranging from the right to be free from judgment, blame or labeling when a parent is incarcerated, to the right to have physical contact with the parent during visits.

But Rep. Mary Hooper, a Montpelier Democrat and a member of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said Tuesday that the push reflects the fact that lawmakers “have been concerned for a period of time about the effect of incarceration on family members of incarcerated individuals, particularly on kids.”

But she added, “I do not think it’s going to be called a ‘bill of rights.’” She said over use of that term could diminish appreciation for other rights, like freedom of speech and against unwarranted searches and seizures. “We need to be very careful about what we call a right,” she said.

Instead, Hooper and other committee members say they expect the legislation will be redrafted to call for better coordination of state services being offered to the children of inmates.

And there should be some standards for how children of incarcerated individuals are treated, she said. “Parents should be able to have physical contact with their children” during visits, Hooper said. She added that inmates who are encouraged to maintain family contacts are “more likely to be successful” on release and to avoid committing new crimes.

The panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said some social service agencies who come into contact with children don’t know when a child has an incarcerated parent. She noted both the Department of Corrections and the Department for Children and Families are parts of the Agency of Human Services, and she called for better information sharing between them. “We need to start looking at this more holistically,” she said.

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