Senate Advances Bill That Bars Employers From Asking About Criminal Record On Job Application

The Vermont Senate has given its unanimous support to legislation that's designed to improve employment opportunities for people who have a criminal record in their past. Backers of the bill say it's needed because many people who've been convicted of a crime never get past the application process if they have to initially disclose this information to an employer.

The bill is a top priority for Vermont Legal Aid. Staff Attorney Chris Curtis notes that employers can still ask about a person's criminal record during the interview process.

"This allows them to get before the employer if they're selected as qualified on their merits and be able to explain something that might be in their past that really no longer applies to their ability to do a job," Curtis says.

Forum on poverty planned

Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid and a member of the governor's Council on Pathways From Poverty, will speak at a forum on poverty in Vermont sponsored by Transition Town Manchester Thursday, April 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Hunter Seminar Room at Burr and Burton Academy.

Other speakers at the forum will include Martha Carey, the director of the Community Food Cupboard in Manchester; Chris Oldham, the executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless; and State Representative Steve Berry.

About 16 percent of the state's youngest residents live in poverty, as defined by federal guidelines.

"We've come from a place where we've declared a war on poverty and we're now in a situation where, after 40 years of attacks on the social safety net, we're at risk of essentially declaring a war on poor people," Curtis said in a phone interview Monday. "We've been told for so long that we can't solve these problems that we've almost forgotten that we can."

Vermont Affordable Housing Show: April is Fair Housing Month

Rachel Batterson, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project, was the  guest for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition’s Live at 5:25 show on April 6.

Rachel provided an overview of what the federal Fair Housing Act and the VT Fair Housing and Public Accommodation Act cover; new HUD guidance on criminal background checks; and the duty of HUD funding recipients to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH). She also noted that Burlington’s first Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) under HUD’s new AFFH regulation is due in October 2017.

You can watch the half-hour program at the link above.

Improvement standard' still being used: Jimmo winners

A landmark legal settlement that, in part, compels the federal government to pay for more therapy and treatment of Medicare beneficiaries is not being adhered to, advocates complained in court recently.

Jimmo's counsel, the Center for Medicare Advocacy and Vermont Legal Aid filed the Motion for Resolution of Non-Compliance with the settlement agreement.

“The Jimmo Settlement leaves no doubt that under the law and related regulations and policies, it is not necessary to improve in order to obtain Medicare coverage for skilled services,” a statement from the groups declared. 

New Guidelines Crack Down on Housing Discrimination

Rachel Batterson, director of the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, was interviewed by Channel 22 about new federal guidelines that are making it easier for people with criminal records to find housing.

According to the new guidelines, landlords must consider carefully before screening out applicants based on criminal history. They also can't screen some people, but not others, for criminal records if who they screen is based on race or other bases prohibited by the Fair Housing Act.

Rachel clarified what this means: "If 90 percent of the time you check the criminal background of African Americans but you don't check the criminal background of white people, you are discriminating against African Americans."

The Housing Discrimination Law Project investigates when people report that they believe they have been discriminated against. “We will send an African American and a white person out to apply for the same apartment and compare how they're treated," Rachel explained. “People of color, immigrants, people with children are all discriminated against at a pretty high rate, some of them almost to the 50 percent level."

HUD also cautions landlords not to consider arrests that don't lead to convictions and to consider what crime the applicant was convicted of and how long ago it happened.

Watch the interview on My Champlain Valley - Channel 22

Pressure is on for LIHEAP funding

Advocates of low-income Vermonters are decrying the lack of funding for heating assistance in the proposed 2017 state budget. ...

The state funds allow Vermont Fuel Assistance to offer aid to households making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $48,500. Without state funding, federal guidelines would restrict aid to households making 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $36,375. ...

Next week, Chris Curtis, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the need to restore state funding for LIHEAP.

“This is another example of a poor tax. This is no different than the reduction in Reach Up funding for parents with disabilities,” Curtis said. “If we don’t have another warm winter like we did this year, there will be a whole lot of Vermonters going cold.”

Vermont schools grapple with the residual impact of opiate abuse

Educators, social workers and mental health professionals are sounding the alarm that Vermont’s opiate problem is working its way into the schoolhouse as one factor driving an increase in students with emotional problems.

Special education is tied to both poverty and opiate addiction, according to legislative testimony from Sherrie Brunelle, a paralegal with the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid.

“Is it tied to opiate issues, is it tied to poverty? I think yes to both. Is it tied to the fact that we don’t have in schools the mental health supports that educators and families need to address those issues early on (in preschool and early elementary)? Yes,” Brunelle said.

Closing of Eagleton School forces DCF to find placements for children with developmental disabilities

The Vermont Department for Children and Families is seeking new homes for six children with developmental disabilities because the school where they reside in Massachusetts will be closed following allegations of abuse. ...

Barbara Prine, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said that children with developmental disabilities go to out of state residential facilities because there are not adequate services in Vermont.

Parents of children with disabilities may require extensive support and services in order to care for their children at home, Prine said. “Vermont doesn’t do as a good a job at providing those community supports for kids as for adults,” she said.

Prine said it is easier for abuse to go undetected in residential facilities. When children are sent out of state, different rules apply for the use of restraints.

“When you’re in a community, then it’s easier for the community to tell when something goes wrong,” she said.

Prine sees a need for more crisis services, wrap-around services, and opportunities for respite to support families with children with developmental disabilities.

Advocates push against Reach Up deduction

Advocates continue to oppose a reduction in state benefits for hundreds of families. The policy change was approved by the House nearly a year ago. In the fiscal year 2016 budget bill, lawmakers sought to save $1.6 million in Reach Up, one of the state’s most widely used benefit programs for families. The reduction in Reach Up payments is carried through in the fiscal year 2017 budget. ...

Vermont Legal Aidled an effort to fight the cut in federal court and halted the implementation of the program for six months. Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed. This year, advocates have returned to the Statehouse to push lawmakers to repeal the law in next year’s budget. ...

Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid, said he would support anything that “takes this terrible policy off the books.”

“We would certainly welcome any amendment that casts a spotlight on this problem,” Curtis said.

VT House advances $24M in fee hikes

The Vermont House advanced a $24 million round of fee increases and $13 million in higher taxes Wednesday as it prepared to debate a $1.54 billion general fund budget for fiscal year 2017. ...

Vermont Legal Aidand other groups representing disabled Vermonters brought dozens of people to the Statehouse on Wednesday to try to persuade lawmakers to restore a $1.6 million cut to the state’s welfare-to-work program that was made last year, affecting households receiving help both from that program and from Social Security disability benefits.