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Caregivers who fail to report child abuse could face felony charges under proposed legislation

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — Any caregiver who knows a child is in danger of abuse but doesn't report it could face a felony charge carrying a 10-year penalty under pending state legislation.

House and Senate judiciary and human services committees were given details of the bill by legislative staff on Wednesday. The legislation comes in response to the 2014 deaths of two toddlers who had been under state supervision.

Vermont currently has a mandatory reporter law, which makes it a misdemeanor for certain professional groups like teachers and nurses to fail to report suspected child abuse.

The bill would broaden the reporting requirement to include anyone having custody, charge or care of a child and would toughen the penalty. Mandatory reporters currently can face up to a $500 fine or a year in jail for failure to report signs of abuse.

A violation under the new language could bring a 10-year prison term and/or a fine of up to $20,000.

The new provision would expand those required to report to include a baby sitter or a grandparent who watches a child for the weekend, said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"If a baby sitter allows her boyfriend to rape the child and does nothing about it, then she could be charged," he said in an interview.

He added that lawmakers are in the very early stages of considering the 43-page bill and that changes are likely as it winds its way through the legislative process.

Luke Martland, chief of the Legislative Council, the Legislature's research and bill-drafting staff, told lawmakers the legislative language was designed to hold accountable those who know of but fail to report child abuse. He also said there are cases in which one family member is reticent to provide information against another.

The possibility of a 10-year felony charge "may provide an inducement for them to cooperate in the investigation," Martland said.

Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, died in February from blunt force trauma to the head, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, died in April of blunt force trauma to the head and neck, skull fractures and broken vertebrae. Second-degree murder charges have been filed against Dezirae's stepfather and Peighton's mother in the two cases. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Too much emphasis on reuniting children with their families, heavy social worker caseloads and absent communications among agencies were contributing factors in the deaths, according to the November findings of a special state panel.

Lawmakers launched a separate inquiry, with a special legislative committee hearing from more than 600 people in hearing testimony and written comments.

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