DCF protection bill clears committee

MONTPELIER — A bill that offers enhanced penalties for assaulting mandated reporters and criminalizes the act of making a threat cleared a key legislative committee Wednesday.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Dick Sears contemplates the DCF protection bill Wednesday morning. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

By a vote of 4 to 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its go ahead to a proposed law that would offer stiffer penalties for assaulting a worker with the Department for Children and Families or anyone who is required to report suspected child abuse.

The bill comes in response to the 2015 shooting death of DCF worker Lara Sobel, who was killed outside her office in downtown Barre in August, and is one of several recent initiatives to protect workers who sometimes find themselves in the middle contentious domestic situations.

Under the terms of the bill, DCF workers and mandated reporters will join the ranks of police officers, first responders and medical providers; assaulting a member of any of these professions carries a stronger penalty than the assault of the average person on the street.

The enhanced penalty for assaulting a mandated reporter would only be in effect if the assault is directly related to the act of making a DCF report.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Jeanette White discusses the DCF protection bill Wednesday morning. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“If someone beats up a coach because he doesn’t like the way he’s coaching, that wouldn’t be covered,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.

This provision was the least controversial aspect of the bill. The proposal to criminalize the act of making a threat underwent far more scrutiny, with the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties raising the possibility such a law could violate constitutional protections for free speech.

On Wednesday, committee members included an amendment to the bill, stating the threatening statute “shall not include constitutionally protected activity.”

The bill offers an enhanced penalty for threatening someone to prevent him or her from making a report to DCF, a provision that Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said might have averted Sobel’s death.

According to courts records, Sobel’s alleged killer, Jody Herring, threatened family members over reports they made to DCF prior to allegedly shooting Herring.

“The whole idea behind this is to prevent what happened. If, had the family members reported the threats, it might have changed things,” Sears said.

Josh O'Gorman / VPB

Sen. Joe Benning reviews the DCF protection bill Wednesday morning. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, who voted against the bill, said he was comfortable with the enhanced penalties for assault, but less so with the threatening provision.

“It’s about wondering whether the language is too expansive and could drag in more commonplace types of expression people make from time to time without any real intent to do any ill to anyone,” Ashe said. “I wasn’t comfortable where this might be too wide of a net or be used as such.”

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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