Vermont House Balks At Failure To Protect Law

The Vermont House of Representatives has turned down a Senate measure that would allow the prosecution of parents who fail to protect their children. Some citing a recent BuzzFeed News investigation, worry it would lead to the imprisonment of battered women.

The Vermont House has rejected a measure that would allow authorities to imprison parents for up to 10 years if they fail to protect their children from abusers. But the measure, which some opponents fear would unfairly punish battered women, may yet re-emerge this session.

The state senate proposed the law as part of a wider package on child abuse known as Senate Bill 9. But in a 139-3 vote on Friday, the House approved an amended bill that does not include a "failure to protect" statute. Key House members members stripped it from the bill after a debate in which some pointed to a recent BuzzFeed News investigation that found that similar laws in other states were leading to harsh prison terms for battered women who themselves had been terrorized by the same men who beat their children.

The BuzzFeed News investigation identified 28 mothers in 11 states who were sentenced to 10 years or more under such 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. Some of the women were sentenced to more time behind bars than the men who actually harmed the children.

Preventing such treatment of battered women in Vermont was "a driving force for me," said Democratic Rep. Barbara Rachelson, who submitted some of the BuzzFeed News reporting into the record and pushed to strip the failure to protect statute out of Vermont's proposed law.

The differing house and senate versions of the law will likely now move to a "conference committee" where three lawmakers from each chamber will try to come to a compromise between the bills. If the senate's failure to protect clause is restored, Vermont would become the 30th state in the country to explicitly criminalize not doing enough to shield children from an abuser.

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