Vermont is debating a law that would allow authorities to imprison parents for up to 10 years if they fail to protect their children from abusers. If it's approved, Vermont would become the 30th state with such a law.
But Vermont's lawmakers are doing something few other states have done: grappling with how to ensure their law does not further victimize battered mothers who were themselves terrorized by the violent men who also abused their children.
The harsh prison terms some battered women are serving because of such laws were the subject of a BuzzFeed News investigation last year that provoked an outcry and calls for reform. Buzzfeed News identified 28 mothers in 11 states who were sentenced to 10 years or more under these laws — despite evidence they had also suffered physical violence at the hands of the abusers. None of the mothers were charged with actually abusing their children.
In testimony at a recent legislative hearing, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence cited cases in Oklahoma and Texas exposed by BuzzFeed News as evidence of the potential unintended consequences of a failure to protect law.
Vermont Senate Bill 9 would allow for up to 10 years in prison for parents who did not themselves harm their children but who knew or “should have known” their children were in danger at the time they were abused or injured. The bill has passed the state’s Senate, and its House Judiciary Committee is set to take up the bill starting on Wednesday.
The BuzzFeed News investigation found that at least 29 other states have laws that allow double-digit prison terms for parents who fail to protect their children from abuse. In some states, mothers who were also battered by the men who harmed their children were sentenced to 20, 30, or even 40 years — or life — behind bars.
While many prosecutors defend such sentences as sending a message that children must be protected at all costs, domestic violence advocates say they are a particularly cruel form of blaming the victim. While the laws are written to apply to fathers and mothers alike, BuzzFeed News found that the laws were overwhelmingly applied to women. In at least three cases, the mothers who failed to prevent child abuse received longer prison sentences than the men who actually harmed their children.
The Vermont bill arose after two brutal, high-profile deaths of young children last year. Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon died of severe head trauma in Poultney, and 14-month-old Peighton Geraw died of head and neck trauma in Winooski. Sheldon’s stepfather and Geraw’s mother have each been charged with second-degree murder.
Horrified, Vermont lawmakers proposed a number of child abuse reforms, including a “failure to protect” statute. Unlike many states, Vermont officials have also proposed an “affirmative defense” that would exempt from prosecution people who feared for their safety when the abuse occurred, such as battered women.
Some prosecutors in other states have said that the fact a woman was battered does not excuse her failure to protect her child from an abuser. Yet in Vermont, the man who represents the views of the state’s county prosecutors said he suggested an exemption for domestic violence victims. David Cahill, the executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said his experience with child abuse cases led him to believe that battered women should not be charged with failure to protect. “Having seen these people face-to-face, in the flesh, I know that we don’t want to charge them with crimes,” he said.
With the affirmative defense in place, the bill cleared the Vermont Senate unanimously.
Yet ahead of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, several groups, including the domestic violence coalition, have come out against the bill — even with its protection for battered women.
Auburn Watersong, a policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said she worries the proposed law would still lead to harsh sentences for battered women. The affirmative defense puts the burden on the defendant to prove that he or she was in fear at the time the child was hurt, which Watersong says can be very hard to prove. And, she added, by the time a parent could prove domestic violence, the injured child and any other children might have already been taken away from the parent.
Domestic violence advocates also worry that battered women are often too traumatized to disclose their abuse.
Even so, John Treadwell of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office told BuzzFeed News that the failure-to-protect law is still warranted. He draws a sharp line between parents who were themselves terrorized by the abuser and those who had nothing to fear but let a child suffer. He cited an example where a mother witnessed her child being sexually assaulted but didn’t report it to the authorities.
“While we acknowledge that abuse could be a reason why people don’t come forward,” he said, “our view is that there needs to be a crime to address situations where parents are not coming forward and children are being severely injured or killed.”
Alex Campbell is the deputy UK investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. His secure PGP fingerprint is C99D 2577 74B1 8DF0 6E90 3CD7 DFF4 C0F2 2492
Contact Alex Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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