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Partisan fighting surrounds effort to stop VA from hiring child care workers charged with crimes

Children place pinwheels on a fence at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., on April 11, 2019, during Child Abuse Prevention Month.

DANIEL BROSAM/U.S. AIR FORCE

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2019

WASHINGTON – A Republican congressman introduced legislation Wednesday to prevent individuals charged with certain crimes from working at Department of Veterans Affairs child care centers – a measure that sparked controversy among members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, a typically bipartisan body.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., introduced the VA Child Care Protection Act after failing last week to get the measure attached to another bill as an amendment.

The legislation would prohibit the VA from contracting with a child care provider if they employ anyone who has been charged with certain crimes, unless they were found innocent and the provider suspended the employee while their case was going through the criminal justice system. It would apply to sex offenses, offenses involving a child victim, a violent crime, a drug felony or any other offense “that VA determines appropriate,” according to a summary for the bill.

In February, the House easily passed legislation to provide free child care to some veterans at VA facilities nationwide. The measure included a provision that prohibits the VA from contracting with child care workers who were convicted of crimes.

Barr says his bill closes a “gaping loophole” in that legislation by also forbidding child care employees who were charged with crimes from working at VA facilities while their cases are still pending.

“My view is that a child care center, any provider that’s caring for the children of veterans should not be employing an individual that’s been charged with a sex crime, a violent crime,” Barr said. “The way we structured it is certainly in keeping with the presumption of innocence – it requires they’re suspended until adjudicated not guilty.”

When Barr attempted to add the measure to another bill during a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs meeting July 11, the committee devolved into across-the-aisle bickering. Democrats accused Republican members of gumming up a bipartisan bill for political motivations. Republicans accused Democratic members of using procedural tactics to avoid a debate on Barr’s measure.

The committee chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., cut off five Republicans as they attempted to speak in favor of the amendment. The night before, Thomas Wickham, the parliamentarian of the House who provides lawmakers with nonpartisan guidance on procedure, decided Barr’s amendment was not relevant to the bill to which he was trying to attach it. Rep. Takano followed that recommendation, his staff said.

“We have already passed language that protects children sufficiently ... strongly worded language,” Takano said. “It makes me wonder what the true motivation of the minority is, to bringing this topic into discussion today.”

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a former committee chairman, said he was astonished and disappointed by how Takano handled the amendment.

“In my 11 years on this committee, I have never seen this happen,” Roe said. “And this is not controversial at all, whether you have a person accused of a very serious crime taking care of children ... I don’t want to be sitting on this committee two years from now and find out that some child has been molested somewhere, and we had the opportunity to do something about it in this committee.”

One committee member, Rep. Gregorio Sablan, an Independent representing the Northern Marina Islands, argued that Barr’s measure goes too far in prohibiting employees charged with crimes, rather than only those convicted.

“Anyone convicted of a heinous crime, I want that person locked up somewhere, but just someone who is charged?” Sablan said. “What’s the next thing – charged for a driving violation? Where do we draw the line? A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

It’s uncertain whether the committee will take up Barr’s measure now that it has been introduced as a stand-alone bill.

So far, the legislation has the support of Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky; Barr served on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

“Children of our military veterans sacrifice mightily as they oftentimes grow up without one or more of their parents,” Jill Seyfred, the nonprofit’s executive director, said in a statement. “This amendment closes a loophole that could prevent children in the care of VA Facilities from being further traumatized.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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