"None of us in this building live under the illusion that anything we do will put an end to sexual violence against children in Vermont,” announced Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin a couple of weeks ago, when the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled 34 recommendations for stiffening the state’s already stiff sex offender laws. The report comes after a summer of hearings held in response to the public lust for revenge following the murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, allegedly by her uncle, Michael Jacques, a repeat sex offender.
The committee report concedes that “it is impossible to know” whether its current proposals would have made any difference for Brooke. Research over the past several decades, moreover, should reinforce this agnosticism. Few data support the claim that longer sentences, broader sex offender registries or more surveillance of former offenders actually protect children. As I’ve argued before, sometimes these measures put kids at more risk.
Nevertheless, Shumlin told the press he is “confident” that the 34-point plan “will make Vermont safer [and] ensure our children won’t succumb to the kind of pain and tragedy that we all remember.”
Tougher laws, if implemented, will enhance not only child safety but also criminal justice, the committee suggests: Its investigation of the system’s handling of Jacques, says the report, “illustrates . . . why so many sex offenders unjustly avoid punishment.”
There is no evidence that sex offenders in Vermont are unjustly avoiding punishment — though I suppose that depends on your definition of unjust.
Shumlin promised to pass legislation implementing the recommendations in the first two weeks of the 2009 session.
But aside from the further vilification and chastisement of a wider universe of offenders, the laws will accomplish only one sure thing: They will shield the Democratic legislature from charges that it is soft on pervs, at least until the next gruesome crime. And after that, when a new committee is impaneled to recommend more stringent laws, it will concede that the existing laws failed to prevent that crime.
Strictly speaking, Shumlin is right to say that policy makers will not end the sexual abuse of children.
But that is not to say there is nothing they can do to significantly reduce child abuse and neglect.
No, not more treatment. Vermont already has about the best in the nation. Not more don’t-touch-me classes in schools or public awareness campaigns, as the 34 points recommend. Contrary to the claims of the ever-growing sex abuse industry — and the report — child abuse is not a “taboo subject.” It is, as Jim Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, often says, the “unspeakable” crime about which we can’t stop speaking.
Special investigative units, which in many places have led to overzealous enforcement and a paranoid child-protective culture, may not stop abuse, either. These will almost inevitably increase the number of child abuse convictions. But couple that increased prosecutorial firepower with the evisceration of the public defender’s office and new limits on interviews with child witnesses, and the resulting convictions won’t necessarily be of the guilty.
Vermont can reduce violence to children. But the way to do so won’t win any sexy headlines. The state can make kids safer from abuse by making them less poor.
Poverty is the single greatest risk factor for child abuse and neglect. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child from a family whose annual income is less than $15,000 is 22 times more likely to suffer abuse and neglect than a child whose parents earn more than $30,000. I repeat: 22 times.
This is not because poor people are evil. It is not because they have a sickness called pedophilia. It is because poor parents are less educated and younger. They have more unplanned children. They suffer more frequently from alcohol and drug addiction and tend to be in poorer health. They live in unstable and overcrowded housing, with more people moving in and out. They are under daily stress, every day, every week and every year.
Each one of these factors, alone and in concert, increases the likelihood that a parent or guardian will batter, insult, underfeed, under-supervise, under-love or sexually molest a child.
Poverty is rising in Vermont. The percentage of the state’s children living in poverty grew sharply, from 8.9 percent to 12.4 percent, from 2002 to 2006. It dropped off a bit in 2007, to 11.7 percent, but the recession will probably wipe out that slight gain. Among these kids are a growing number whose families earn less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. That level is $21,200 a year for a family of four. Half is $10,000 a year — about $200 a week. Try feeding a family on that — much less housing or clothing it.
Clinton’s “welfare reform” of 2001, which placed a five-year lifetime cap on public assistance, buttressed by Bush-administration work requirements that pushed even more people off the rolls, has created a new category of people who subsist utterly without public help. Some are emotionally unable to work; others have reached their five years and have drifted away. Social service professionals and advocates have given them a name: “disconnected women.” They are a growing group in Vermont. And they have kids.
And yet, the programs that would help give Vermont’s poor families the wherewithal to treat their kids better — the programs through which the state treats poor kids better — are among those that both Democrats and Republicans have placed on the chopping block to alleviate the state’s projected budget shortfalls, mounting far above $100 million.
According to documents released in September by the Joint Fiscal Office, among the programs being considered for cuts is SCHIP — the State Child Health Insurance Program — which will need to increase its premiums. As well, the already underfunded childcare-subsidy program could be required to limit its rolls and create a waiting list. Washington’s Center on Children and Poverty  calls this subsidy the single most important method of getting low-income working families out of poverty.
The children’s mental-health program faces potential cuts of $600,000, although the economic crisis is likely to put more stresses on families and increase the need for this service. The Runaway Coalition, which helps youths on the street — sitting ducks for sexual exploitation — stands to lose $615,000.
Teen centers, homeless centers and post-adoption centers, all of which heat their offices with the friction from rubbing two dimes together, are looking at losing half their tiny allocations.
The state is also now proposing to comply with niggardly federal restrictions that it has long proudly resisted. Vermont has not subtracted people’s SSI grants from their TANF — Temporary Aid to Needy Families . Now it is considering doing so. Part of the federal work requirement for assistance was that if a parent did not comply with the rules, sanctions would be taken against the whole family (except for the children’s Medicaid). Vermont refused to let children be deprived because of their parents’ mistakes, so it has long deducted only a portion of the check and left some for the kids’ needs. Now, for the first time, the state is thinking of imposing “full-family” sanctions. Says Sheila Reed, Legislative and Community Advocacy Coordinator for Voices for Vermont’s Children , “They are nickel and diming the poorest of the poor.”
And, while all this is happening, the Vermont Child Poverty Council, established by the legislature in 2007 “to develop a 10-year plan to reduce the number of children living in poverty in the state by at least 50 percent,” receives no independent appropriation. A preliminary report will be released in January, but without money it is hard to know what more the council can do to make its wishes reality.
If the sex-crime laws are adopted, the state’s already shrinking budget will have to absorb untold new costs. Expanding sex offender registries will draw down the treasury by $3 million; special sex crimes investigative units and, of course, longer imprisonments will cost far more. Other stealth expenses will reveal themselves in time — the price tag for health care of geriatric prisoners; the police and probation officers’ time wasted chasing after beeping GPS devices and enforcing a growing list of impossible-to-comply-with restrictions; the loss of child support payments, not to mention taxes, from long-incarcerated fathers.
And as the life rafts that keep people above water start to deflate, those who make it to shore will need more attention. The costs won’t drop; they will rise.
Compared with other states, Vermont treats its poor people relatively well. That’s not saying much, however, says Voices Executive Director Carlen Finn: “The bar is extremely low in this country.” Until now, the state’s low-income advocates have been able to rescue most poor children’s programs from the axe. For their part, representatives in Montpelier have upheld a commitment to keeping people out of the deepest poverty.
For the first time in decades, that commitment is being tested, as policy makers consider abandoning the state’s most vulnerable.
And a big reason why they’re doing so is that they do not wish to discomfit its most comfortable by raising their taxes a few points.
Pain and tragedy, Senator Shumlin? Few if any of the 34 points will prevent these from befalling Vermont’s children. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that each shiny, sharp nail the state installs in a sex offender’s bed will be felt on the skin of a child.