Editorial Roundup: New England

Portland Press Herald. December 1, 2021.

Editorial: Some of our state’s most serious crimes go unreported

The rate of offenses continues to fall in Maine, but that figure doesn’t say it all.

There’s a lot to learn from Maine’s crime statistics. The most important lesson, however, is that many of the most egregious crimes committed here never show up in the numbers.

With those that do, Maine looks pretty good. The statistics released by the Department of Public Safety this week show that Maine continues to be one of the safest places in the country, as crime here fell for the ninth straight year.

It is also significant that a nearly 16 percent drop in arrests and summonses did not make communities any less safe, as COVID forced law enforcement to limit the number of people it was sending to the court and jail systems.

Clearly, lowering the number of people incarcerated in Maine has a number of benefits, not the least of which is lower costs to taxpayers. Now that we know Maine can lower arrests and summonses without putting public safety at risk, that should become the policy going forward.

But when it comes to Maine, the annual crime report is more telling for what it doesn’t show: the thousands of cases of sexual and domestic violence that go unreported every year.

Historically those crimes have always been underreported. With the crime rate falling, the dynamic becomes even more pronounced: We know that these crimes are happening, so the falling rate only means it’s likely that more are going unreported to police.

Calls to law enforcement may be dropping, the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence told the Press Herald, but “there has been no similar reduction in the numbers of domestic violence victims reaching out to our 24-hour helpline.”

Hate crimes are similarly unreported, for a number of reasons. So while the number of such crimes reported is way up in 2020 – 83, in contrast to just 19 in 2019, most having to do with racial bias, sexual orientation and gender identity – that is only the start.

By most measures, Maine is incredibly safe. The state’s 14 crimes per 1,000 residents is nearly half of the national crime rate for 2020, and its rate for violent crimes is about a quarter of the country-wide rate.

But those rates miss something, including those neighbors of ours who live in fear of someone in their life, or who suffer from trauma following an assault, and aren’t sure what to do.

Some, too, don’t feel comfortable in public places solely because of the way they look.

Strong communities don’t look the other way when its members are suffering like that. People need to look out for others in their lives that may be survivors of sexual and domestic violence, letting them know they have support. They need to speak up when they see hate directed toward someone.

Survivors need to know that resources are available: people and organizations who can help them figure out what they need to do, whatever that is, and support them along the way.

And when survivors go to law enforcement, police and prosecutors have to deliver. While very few of the overall number of assaults are reported, even fewer end with any real justice at all.

Too many of these crimes now happen in the shadows. The only way to bring them into the light is to make sure people know they are taken seriously.

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Bangor Daily News. December 3, 2021.

Editorial: Maybe ‘forever chemicals’ should be called ‘everywhere chemicals’

We knew that PFAS contamination was widespread. But the fact that it’s contaminating deer meat in the Fairfield area is an eye-opening reminder of just how extensive this problem is. It’s enough to wonder if these “forever chemicals” should be called “everywhere chemicals.”

It’s not exactly a surprise that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals known as PFAS that have been used in various applications including non-stick coating and water-resistant materials, are increasingly being identified in Maine and across the country. After all, these chemicals have already been found in nearly every American who has been tested for them. Scientists estimate that nearly two-thirds of Americans have drinking water that is contaminated with some form of the chemicals.

This, unfortunately, isn’t news. What is news is that high levels of PFAS have now been detected in some deer killed by hunters in the Fairfield area. On Nov. 23, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “Do Not Eat” advisory for deer hunted in that area.

In October, the state identified 34 Maine towns — including Fairfield — where the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will test for soil and water contamination. That important effort is focusing on sites where municipal and industrial waste has been used as fertilizer. The Department of Environmental Protection discovered PFAS in Fairfield well water last year, which was caused by the use of waste sludge as fertilizer on farm fields.

PFAS chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. These substances can break down slowly, causing them to persist in the environment and earning them the “forever chemicals” label.

Dealing with chemicals that are this long lasting and this pervasive is a daunting task. But a critical early step is identifying the extent of the problem. In order to mitigate spread and clean up contaminated sites, you need to know where they are. To that end, it is encouraging that the state is putting unprecedented resources into the PFAS identification efforts and has taken other steps like enacting more stringent PFAS drinking water standards and extending the statute of limitations for Mainers to claim PFAS-related harm.

Recent movement at the federal level also offers some hope, with the October announcement of a national strategy to limit further PFAS releases and cleanup contamination that has already happened, and with the bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in November including $10 billion to help get PFAS out of drinking water. Nearly $70 million in federal water infrastructure funding, some of it related to PFAS, is coming to Maine in 2022 as part of the first installment of that infrastructure package.

As state and national action moves forward, some local impacts are already obvious and mounting. The newest discovery of PFAS-contaminated deer in the Fairfield area hits home and hits hard.

The experience of Fairfield’s Alex Poulin is a worrying snapshot into a larger problem. He had already started hunting outside of his hometown because of PFAS concerns, having learned about elevated level PFAS in local wells last year (including his grandmother’s). He rightly figured that if the chemicals were impacting people, they’d be affecting wildlife, too.

“Being an outdoorsman and a lover of the outdoors, I really feel like this is going to, or has the potential to, really hurt the hunting and fishing and recreational part of the outdoors because there’s no way to get rid of this stuff,” he said.

His concerns are on target. The state and federal governments’ continued PFAS response needs to be, too.

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Boston Globe. December 2, 2021.

Editorial: Massachusetts lawmakers must protect the rights of LGBTQ and other parents

Current law leaves nonbiological parents of children in the lurch, legally and financially.

Massachusetts was the first state to legally recognize same-sex marriage. But it now has the dubious distinction of being the only New England state that has yet to enact a law giving clear legal protections for LGBTQ parents and all others who conceive through surrogacy or the use of other assistive reproductive technologies.

When state lawmakers left Beacon Hill for the year, they left those much-needed protections, which would be enshrined in the Massachusetts Parentage Act, on their pile of unfinished business. In a sign of lawmakers’ utter lack of urgency, the Joint Judiciary Committees only got around to holding a hearing on the measure on Nov. 9, with just a handful of legislative days left in the calendar year.

Passing the bill should be one of the first orders of business when they return. LGBTQ families and others whose parental bonds are not based on biology have for too long had to endure the uncertainty of not having their rights fully recognized inside and outside of the state.

The legislation, which has bipartisan support, would create much clearer standards to establish legal parentage of children conceived through artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization with donor sperm, surrogacy, or other means. Parents in those circumstances could establish their legal relationship by voluntarily acknowledging and declaring the parental relationship instead of via formal adoption. It would also provide courts guidance on how to settle parentage disputes.

The pandemic has only underscored the importance of shoring up those family law protections. Under current law, parental rights of nonbiological children are only clearly recognized through an order of adoption issued by a court or some other legal designation. With courts and other municipal offices backlogged — if they were open at all — tasks as simple and vital as getting insurance coverage for children have involved extra layers of red tape.

Adoption can also be expensive. Adoption-related court costs and attorney fees, filing fees, and other costs can add up.

Forcing parents to adopt their own children also robs parents, many of whom have already endured the often emotionally arduous and financially draining process of conceiving a child through assistive reproductive means, of the dignity of starting their families on their own terms. Even parents who are present in a child’s life from the moment of birth are forced to adopt the baby before the state fully recognizes the relationship.

Many people may not recognize how discriminatory current parentage laws are, given that Massachusetts is known as a trailblazing state for LGBTQ equality.

“Marriage is so incredibly important, but doesn’t solve all the problems with discrimination,” said Polly Crozier, senior staff attorney for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders.

This is especially true of families who venture outside of the state. Crozier pointed to a recent Idaho state court ruling involving the divorce of a same-sex couple who had conceived a child via sperm donation. The court held that the nonbiological mother was not the child’s legal parent.

“For LGBTQ families who are still facing discrimination across the country, you really do need to protect your family with a decree of adoption or something that is the equivalent,” Crozier noted.

Families have had to endure this delay in legal protections long enough. Sending the bill to the governor’s desk should be at the top of state lawmakers’ list of New Year’s resolutions.

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Brattleboro Reformer. November 30, 2021.

Editorial: Putting the ‘giving’ in Giving Tuesday: ‘Every act of generosity counts’

Today, we join good-hearted people across the globe for Giving Tuesday, a day to perform and celebrate acts of generosity through donations of voice, time, money, goods and advocacy. This also marks an important time to launch a giving season that lasts through the holidays and — we sincerely hope — throughout the year.

Giving Tuesday was created in 2012, based on a clear idea: Taking this day to encourage people to do good. That can involve everything from writing a check to a favorite cause, to helping a neighbor in need.

The organization reported that $2.47 billion was donated to U.S. nonprofit groups by a reported 34.8 million people on Giving Tuesday in 2020.

In addition, Giving Tuesday has come to symbolize the start of the giving season, with the final month of the year seeing the most generous donations, linked to the Christmas season.

Vermont Public Radio kicked off a Giving Tuesday effort, announcing that for “every gift to VPR & Vermont PBS on Giving Tuesday, the Vermont Community Foundation and additional generous supporters will donate the equivalent of 25 meals so that the Vermont Foodbank can help Vermonters facing hunger and food insecurity.”

The need is great. According to VPR, the National Food Access and COVID Research Team at UVM found that 1 in 3 people in Vermont has reported facing food insecurity during the pandemic, a dramatic increase from 1 in 10 pre-pandemic. To meet the increased need, the Vermont Foodbank has nearly doubled its distribution as compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Groundworks in Brattleboro focuses its Giving Tuesday efforts on fundraising for Project Feed the Thousands, which runs from the beginning of November to the end of December, raising money for nine food shelves in Windham County.

Libby Bennett, director of development and communications for Groundworks, said her organization uses the holiday season to conduct the bulk of their annual fundraising. She said the needs are enormous — with both of Groundworks shelters full and 91 households staying in hotels for housing. There is also a call for warm winter coats, hats and gloves, as well as people willing to prepare and serve meals at the new 54 South Main St. stop-in and overnight shelter (to help, email meals@groundworksvt.org).

Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield announced Monday it will honor Giving Tuesday with donations to 32 charities and nonprofit organizations across Vermont totaling $78,500. The donations span a variety of causes from affordable housing to mental health advocacy and many more.

In Bennington County, there are organizations ranging from the Project Against Violent Encounters, the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services Inc. and many others that are providing meals, shelter, clothing, safety from abuse and so many other services that make life just a bit easier for those in need. Ask around; focus on issues that speak to your heart; or simply reach out to a neighbor who might seem isolated and lonely.

Habitat for Humanity could use a little help after thieves broke into a storage trailer at a Pownal homesite earlier this month, stealing several power tools. In a letter to the editor of the Bennington Banner, the organization invited the thieves to return the stolen tools and join volunteers who are building the home for a needy family. And the (span)Turning Point Center of Bennington has been helping a record number of people with substance use issues at a time when opiate overdose deaths are at an all-time high.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of neighbors who could use a helping hand.

As Giving Tuesday says, “People can show their generosity in a variety of ways during Giving Tuesday. Whether it’s helping a neighbor, advocating for an issue, sharing a skill or finding virtual volunteer opportunities with their favorite causes — everyone has something to give and every act of generosity counts.”

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. November 30, 2021.

Editorial: Investing in community

We have seen disturbing headlines about violent crimes across Vermont.

There were shooting deaths in Alburgh and Elmore, less than a day apart. And Vermont State Police news releases confirm the steady stream of domestic assaults and other violent crimes being committed.

Nationwide, we have seen increased violence during the past year and a half. Homicides rose 30%, and gun assaults rose 8% in large cities in 2020. The number of homicides in the first quarter of 2021 was 24% higher than the number of homicides in the first quarter of 2020 and 49% higher than in the first quarter of 2019.

And yet, to read the police logs with any regularity, you realize our police departments (as well as the state troopers) are mostly responding to very minor (certainly nonviolent) incidents, many of them associated with substance abuse, mental health crises or neighborhood spats.

Across the nation and around the state, there have been calls to “defund the police.” But we need local police to respond to violent crimes.

There is conventional thinking out there that our towns and cities might be better served with local organizations and nonprofits stepping in to respond to calls that do not necessarily require an officer, but might be better suited for someone with proper expertise and training in social services.

Certainly, police departments would be grateful for the assistance, and the public would probably feel better about a more layered approach to helping people in need.

Countries around the world focus on a more tiered approach to serving the community. It is not neighborhood watches but, rather, trained professionals going to spots in communities where there might be problem areas with youth issues, homelessness, substance abuse. The interventions happen at a very personal level, oftentimes with trained workers proactively getting resources for people in need before an incident escalates.

That level of community involvement requires funding. There are some groups that advocate for a more comprehensive approach to “policing” arguing that if the nation can spend $120 billion a year on law enforcement, it can spend that same amount on trained service providers at a more community level.

The pressure is there for change. We feel it here in Vermont — often acutely — when there is a violent crime or a police-related shooting. The questions around what is “being done” become pronounced and oftentimes heated.

President Joe Biden, as part of his Build Back Better plan, has federal funding set aside toward addressing a different approach that not only allows police to focus more on violent crime (and get handguns out of the hands of criminals), it addresses this need for more community-wide policing.

The bill calls for an investment in evidence-based community violence interventions.

According to the plan, community violence intervention programs have been shown to reduce violence by as much as 60%. These programs are effective because they leverage trusted messengers who work directly with individuals most likely to commit gun violence to intervene in conflicts and connect people to social, health and wellness, and economic services to reduce the likelihood of violence as an answer to conflict.

According to the White House website, the Treasury Department announced that the American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion in state and local funding can be used to invest in evidence-based community violence interventions. Just over $5 billion is devoted specifically to groups aimed at serving as intervenors and community builders.

The Biden administration has vowed that throughout 18 months it will convene meetings with officials from American communities, facilitate peer-to-peer learning, and provide technical assistance.

“This effort will support proven and new strategies that reduce gun violence and strengthen community-based infrastructure to enhance public safety for children, families, and communities and to advance equity,” the White House said in a news release.

We are at a historic moment during which we have resources to address this concern. Through generations, Vermont has been a leader in the nation on many issues. Because of its size (population and land mass) and versatility and pragmatism, we might just be the best state in which to invest in community organizations that are skilled in de-escalation, to build an army of peacekeepers who have tools and skills in place to review emergencies, establish protocols and develop and maintain rapid response networks to respond in an emergency without law enforcement.

With all we are facing right now — more violent crime and more nonviolent incidents — that’s the kind of broader investment in our communities we really need.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. December 2, 2021.

Editorial: Editorial: CT can set an example for police accountability

Connecticut’s Police Accountability Law has been — and likely will remain — polarizing. It thus demands vigilant scrutiny.

There’s a thick blue line between positions on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the law, which was crafted in response to George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May 2020. Connecticut’s law, which took effect 14 months ago, was a big swing to address a lot of issues regarding police behavior. Among other things, it tightens restrictions on searches, reduces immunity from lawsuits and limits use of deadly force.

Even many of the law’s champions have acknowledged it will likely need tweaking in future legislative sessions. In the meantime, it is important to bookmark the effectiveness of one element of the law that made headlines in recent days.

Gary Gamarra resigned as a New Haven police officer last December after being accused of coercing sex from two women. Before the accountability law took effect, he might have been able to secure a position with another police department in the state.

Twelve months later, though, the Police Officer Standards and Training Council has revoked his certification, eliminating the possibility of Gamarra working again in law enforcement in Connecticut.

It’s a landmark moment, because Gamarra is the first police officer in the state to be stripped of his certification under the general misconduct provision of the law. It’s not just Connecticut that should pay attention, but other states as well.

Yes, Gamarra won’t wear a badge again in Connecticut, but that doesn’t mean he can’t seek similar employment in other states. Around the nation, too many officers who would fail background checks in other industries routinely find new jobs by moving to other towns, or other states. One study detailed how police departments in Florida had a lineup of hundreds of officers who had been fired from previous jobs.

This single case illustrated how that trend can be reversed. An officer accused of inappropriate behavior cannot beat the system by proactively resigning and seeking work elsewhere. Victims deserve better.

Police unions have challenged the law and supported political candidates of the same mindset. In the public eye, all police carry the weight of a disgraced officer. The solution isn’t to make it harder to clean up the ranks.

A more appropriate remedy would be a united stand supporting the creation of a federal database of police misconduct. Connecticut made bold moves in becoming a laboratory in this undertaking, but there needs to be more support across the nation.

Many police work hard to earn the faith of the people they serve, but that trust is compromised when they resist change that protects the public (this is just one example. Another is the blowback in some departments to getting vaccinated against COVID-19).

But officers should not be the primary concern in executing and refining the Police Accountability Law. “Police” may be in the name, but this is really about shielding the public.

END