- Associated Press - Sunday, November 30, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A lawmaker who has been working for months to learn about the challenges facing the state’s child welfare system says the toughest job could be yet to come - crafting legislation that will actually protect children.

After a dozen meetings across the state and testimony from more than 600 witnesses, state Sen. Richard Sears says it will be up to the Legislature to craft new laws to put into practice the needs identified in those meetings. Sears says he hopes lawmakers can consider those proposals as soon as they return to the Statehouse in January.

“I think the hard work lays ahead for the standing committees (of the Legislature) and the administration to come up with the different plans,” said Sears, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Special Committee on Child Protection and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, co-chairwoman of the child protection committee and chairwoman of the Senate’s Health and Welfare committee, said identical bills would be prepared for introduction in both the House and Senate.

The child protection committee was formed to look at the state’s child welfare system after the February death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney and the April death of 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski. Both children were known to the Department for Children and Families.

Sears said it will be important to clarify that the best interest of the child should be paramount in any child protection case, even over reuniting families.

The committee also heard that confidentiality laws sometimes prevented those involved in a child’s care, including social workers, police or teachers, from sharing information that could be used to make the best decisions for the children.

“It’s not easy to sort that out into a set of rules that always ends up protecting the right people,” Ayer said. “There’s going to be a real delicate balance on how that happens.”

Others ideas committee members will seek to legislate include establishing an oversight committee independent of DCF, broadening the definition of harm to include exposing children under age 14 to illegal substances and creating a new crime for failure to prevent harm to a child.

Sears said lawmakers broadly agree on the need for change, but he expects the issue to provoke sharp debate.

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