Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Money Down A Rathole

originally published in the Hartford Advocate August 30, 2007

Money Down A Rathole
West Hartford's rodent crackdown penalizes victims and perpetrators alike

By Jennifer Abel

Before discussing the very serious rodent problem plaguing West Hartford, let's get the obvious joke out of the way: "I always knew it was full of rats but figured they had offices in Town Hall, heh heh heh." (Actually, where the current controversy's concerned, it's the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District most likely to be discussed in rat-like metaphors, but we'll get to that later.)

Jokes aside, there really is a rat-infestation problem in the Elmwood section of town, though of the four-legged rather than political variety. The problem's been ongoing for at least a year, residents say.

"You get up in the morning, walk your dog, you see rats all over," said Rick Dean. "Rats in the road, rats in people's yards, rats on the sidewalk ... especially on garbage day, that's when they all come out to eat."

Dean's neighbor James Cyr concurs. "On the street, around the houses, underneath the porches, they're all over the place."

The species infesting Elmwood is the Norway rat, which has been called "the most destructive animal in North America." It's also one of the fastest-breeding mammals on Earth.

"They can have a litter of young every 21 days," says Steve Huleatt, director of the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District. "Up to 16 in a litter for this particular species." Statistically, around half of each litter will be female, and newborn females reach reproductive maturity in four months. Also, rats have no mating season, but breed year-round. Do the math: it won't take long for a small rat problem to spawn a big one.

About the only good thing to say regarding the Norway rat is that it wasn't the species that helped spread the Black Death through medieval Europe. That dubious honor goes to the black rat. Still, a plague of Norway rats is nothing to get complacent about. Not that anyone is. Plenty of people in Elmwood have hired the services of exterminators, but the problem's too big for any one property owner to handle.

"One homeowner makes his yard rat-unfriendly, so they just move next door," Huleatt said on Aug. 21, at a public meeting the health department held at the Elmwood Community Center. Since piecemeal exterminations won't solve the problem, the department plans to arrange a single-night mass rat-killing sometime in the near but indeterminate future. At the meeting, Huleatt and West Hartford's mayor Scott Slifka announced that they would put out a Request For Proposals in search of a contractor capable of handling such a huge task.

So far, so good. It's the health department's plans in the interim that have homeowners irate. The department sent letters to 88 people in Elmwood, ordering them all to clean up their rat-infested properties and hire an exterminator.

James Cyr got one of the letters. It says he "was found to be in violation" of local codes because "rat burrows, rodent tracks, and/or other signs of rodent activity were observed on the property."

That's true. The burrows are in a narrow strip of space between Cyr's small garden shed and the high fence separating Cyr's yard from the one behind it. The Advocate came by a few hours after Cyr had buried most of the burrows under fresh dirt, but the rats had already re-dug one of their exit holes.

"I cover one hole, they dig a new hole," Cyr says. He'd had an exterminator come by just that afternoon (at a cost of $75), but "he said there's not much he can do. He can drop the [poison] bait here, but you've got to go to the source to solve the problem."

The source is the yard behind Cyr's. The Advocate peeked over the fence into the yard of a shabby multi-family home and saw a veritable ratopia: piles of rotting garbage, old plant matter half-decayed into compost, and at least a half-dozen enormous rat-burrow entrances near a row of loosely covered garbage cans.

The letter from the health department says "whenever infestation is caused by failure of the owner to maintain a dwelling in a reasonably pest- insect- or ratproof condition, extermination shall be the responsibility of the owner."

But Cyr's infestation isn't caused by any failures on his part: his garbage is kept in a locked shed surrounded by enormous bricks buried deep in the ground. "I did that so the rats can't burrow their way into my garbage shed," he said. His yard is immaculate; the Advocate couldn't find so much as a stray grass clipping, let alone enormous rat-friendly compost piles like the kind behind his neighbor's house.

There's two ways you can wind up with rats on your property: make it a rat-friendly zone, or live close to someone who has.

When the Advocate called Huleatt to ask why people like Cyr received copies of the letter, Huleatt said it's because "for whatever reason, they've either allowed or permitted those rats to get into their yard."

"I'm not 'permitting' the rats to come into my yard," Cyr said with obvious disgust. "I'm doing everything I can to keep them out. How am I supposed to keep them from burrowing into my yard? Should I cover it all in concrete?"

No. That would probably violate town zoning codes. Until the mass kill hopefully wipes out the Elmwood rat problem, homeowners like Cyr have to grin, bear it and literally pour money down the ratholes in their yard, by hiring exterminators who freely admit they can't solve the problem unless they can go to its source.

Will Cyr at least be reimbursed for his exterminator fees? Steve Huleatt said, "I don't know."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dead Dog Blues

originally published in the Hartford Advocate November 22, 2007

Dead Dog Blues
Alan Weisenberg's old pet Chihuahua was confiscated by Animal Control, and later died. He is now being charged with cruelty to animals for letting it live so long.

By Jennifer Abel

Picture a female named Bambi, age 18 or 19 years old. But before investing too much energy in the wrong image, you should know that Bambi is a dog. A Chihuahua, in fact, equivalent to a centenarian in human terms.

So the fact that she died last month really isn't any surprise, but the fact that her owner's facing jail time maybe is.

It's an odd tale. On one side there's Alan Weisenberg, a 58-year-old West Hartford man who is by most accounts a responsible dog owner. Then there's Karen Jones, a town Animal Control officer who is by most accounts a responsible dog warden.

Until Sept. 17, the day Weisenberg says she threatened to arrest him on animal cruelty charges if he didn't have Bambi euthanized.

The dog died in her sleep on Oct. 5, and two weeks later Weisenberg went to the police to turn himself in after learning of an Oct. 16 arrest warrant in his name. Now he's waiting for his Dec. 11 court date, where he faces up to a year in jail.

"[Jones] said, 'when dogs get old ... we should put them down.'" Weisenberg recalled in an interview with the Advocate. "I said, 'Who are you to tell me to put my dog down? If she's dying, she can die at home with her family."

By all accounts the dog was in poor health. "[Bambi's] left leg had arthritis," Weisenberg said. "I used to carry her outside, she liked the warm weather ... I guess it made her arthritis feel better."

Weisenberg knew his old dog didn't have long to live. "I've had her since she was a pup ... I didn't want to put her down. If she was showing she was in pain, crying or something, then I would've said 'All right.' But she didn't."

The incident happened on a warm day on Sept. 17. Usually, when Weisenberg went to work he brought his two large mongrel dogs with him and left Bambi in the house. But that was a particularly nice day, and Bambi wanted to stay outside. And so: "Never done this before, but I had a cord about 15 feet long, and tied her to a tree outside while I went to work for five or six hours. Someone — they never said who — called [town officials] to say they thought the dog was dead."

An elderly, arthritic dog sprawled on a sunny sidewalk might well be mistaken for a dead one.

So far this sounds, at most, like a routine misunderstanding. Weisenberg didn't know Bambi had become a law-enforcement issue until he left work, "got home, and saw a cop and the dog warden."

Bambi was already in the Animal Control truck when he got home, Weisenberg said, so he couldn't simply carry her back inside. Weisenberg says Jones wanted the dog euthanized almost from the start. "She said if you let me put the dog down, I won't charge you with anything."

Weisenberg's roommate Rick Bouchard said he was there and confirms Weisenberg's account of the conversation between the dog owner and the animal control official. "She was threatening to arrest [Weisenberg] and fine him if he didn't release the dog to her," he said.

Weisenberg refused. Animal Control took Bambi to Avon's Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital, where she stayed for 10 days until Weisenberg's attorney Fred Boland sent police a letter demanding the dog's return.

On Sept. 27 another animal control officer took Bambi to Newington's Fox Clinic, a low-cost facility run by the Humane Society. After being checked by a vet, the dog was released back into Weisenberg's custody.

"She was always thin," Weisenberg said, "but they gave me back a skeleton ... they put her in a kennel somewhere where she was scared to death, probably a cubicle with a hard cement floor ... she was so happy to see me."

Bambi died in her sleep Oct. 5. Weisenberg mourned his dog and figured the matter over. But police were preparing an arrest warrant, completed and dated Oct. 16. Bouchard was the first to learn of its existence.

"I was emptying the garbage about nine, 9:30 at night, and then four cops with flashlights came up — I think it was three police and the animal investigator there — they asked me if I was Alan. I told them no ... I imagine they knew I wasn't Alan; they did not ask for ID." Weisenberg turned himself in the next day.

This is the part of the story where police are supposed to give their version of events. But with Weisenberg's court appearance pending, neither Officer Jones nor Chief of Police James Strilacci can speak to the press. They did return our calls long enough to say they couldn't say anything, and Jones added "I'd be more than happy to help you out after the case is taken care of ... and help you write a good story."

Their version of events can be found in the arrest warrant affidavit, which Boland gave us as soon as he got a copy (two days after we first spoke to Weisenberg). It describes a dog suffering not from old age, but neglectful ownership.

Weisenberg and Boland both say events were twisted just out of focus of the truth.

For one example, the warrant says that Jones felt the dog needed emergency care, but "Weisenberg insisted the dog was fine, just old and that he did not have the funding to pay for her care and might soon be losing his used car business."

Boland and Weisenberg's version of the encounter is that Weisenberg wanted to take Bambi to his own vet rather than the one recommended by Jones because "business has been slow and the Fox Clinic is cheaper."

Parts of the affidavit read a bit ambiguously: one section notes that Bambi was tied to the tree by a 20 foot rope, and later says ,"A bowl of water was visible but at least 15 feet away from where the dog lay collapsed," implying that it was out of Bambi's reach. The report also says the dog lacked shelter.

It's true there's no doghouse in Weisenberg's front yard, but there is a crabapple tree whose sprawling branches provide shade (at least in September; by late November the tree's a largely leafless skeleton). A 15- or 20-foot rope tied to the trunk would be just long enough to let the dog escape the shade and sun herself at sidewalk's edge.

The police report says the Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital recommended euthanizing Bambi when she arrived on Sept. 17.

But a "to whom it may concern" letter from the Fox Clinic, dated Oct. 31 and referencing the Sept. 27 visit, made no such suggestion; it says Bambi showed no signs of physical abuse or cruelty, but that Weisenberg was advised to "eliminate outside tethering for extended periods of time because of age and health issues." So keeping Bambi outside on Sept. 17 was probably a bad idea (though whether it rises to the level of criminal animal cruelty is another matter).

The state Animal Control Division is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. We called to ask under what circumstances a dog owner could be legally compelled to put his pet down, and were surprised to learn the answer is "none." If a dog is violent the state can confiscate and destroy it, but the owner's not obliged to do so. Therefore, if Jones tried forcing Weisenberg to euthanize the dog, she far overstepped her authority as an Animal Control officer.

But the man who answered the phone at Animal Control seemed very surprised to hear who we were talking about. "That sounds out of character for [Jones]," he said.

Get Off Your Lazy Omnipotent Ass And Help Us

originally published in the Hartford Advocate "Up Front" section July 12, 2007

Get Off Your Lazy Omnipotent Ass And Help Us
Alabama Governor declares a pray-for-rain week for his state.

The drought parching the Southeast has been particularly devastating for Alabama, whose primary industry is agriculture. So Governor Bob Riley has adopted a take-charge, proactive solution to the problem, and issued a proclamation declaring June 30 through July 7 as "Days of Prayer for Rain" week in the state. "I encourage all Alabamians to pray individually and within their houses of worship for sufficient rain," said the press release given by the governor's office.

So how did it work? The good news: last week scattered showers dropped nearly a half-inch of rain on some parts of the state. The bad news: it'll take at least 14 inches to get water levels back to normal. Theological speculation as to why the prayer week failed: Riley asked all Alabamians to pray. That means Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and probably a few Pastafarians too. So you know at least one person in the state prayed to a false and non-existent God, thus annoying the real one enough to negate any brownie points the statewide prayer vigil might otherwise have racked up.

Between The Lines

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 28, 2007

Between The Lines
Tax activists would love to suggest some cuts to the town budget, only the budget isn’t itemized, so where does the money go?

By Jennifer Abel

You know how some people say that complaining is useless unless you offer some constructive criticism, too? The West Hartford Taxpayers’ Association admits it can’t find much constructive to say.

Get this: a few months ago, when next year’s proposed town budget came out, the association was dismayed to find that once again, tax bills would increase at a rate roughly double that of inflation.

"A lot of people are thinking of leaving town because they can’t afford the taxes," said association president Theresa McGrath. So the WHTA held a petition drive and collected enough signatures to force the referendum, where voters defeated the proposed budget by a margin of nearly three to one.

Score one for the taxpayers’ association. Then ask the obvious question: if they think the budget is too high, what cuts do they recommend?

"I don’t know," McGrath admitted as she sat on the back deck of her modest two-bedroom home and pored through a copy of the budget on the patio table before her. It’s a massive document, that budget, and looks quite impressive: high-quality binder, glossy colored separators, and an overall sense of graphic design much higher than you’d expect for a small-town municipal budget.

Pretty dull reading, though. Nonetheless, McGrath has spent hours poring over it. So why can’t she suggest any cuts?

"The budget is not a line-item budget," she said. "Each department shows a dollar increase, but they’re not telling us what they’re spending it on."

Here’s what she means: suppose you need to cut expenses, and think maybe you can trim a few dollars from your grocery bill. By listing individual food purchases, you can look through them and say "I can save money here by replacing steak with ground beef, and there by replacing Domino sugar with store-brand."

But you can’t do that if all your groceries are lumped together into a single line item labeled "Food." And that’s how West Hartford’s budget is written.

"Wages and salaries for the town manager’s department increased by 18.2 percent [from last year]," McGrath said, pointing out the relevant statement in the budget book. "We were told by his office that his salary wasn’t increasing this year. They said that large percent increase resulted from moving the previous town manager’s salary from another portion of the budget."

Did they say which portion? "No. So we don’t know if that portion of the budget was [correspondingly] decreased."

McGrath showed other vague examples: "fringe benefits" for one town department increasing nearly 40 percent, and "special allocations" for another increasing 127 percent (in this case, $470,000).

Naturally, the Advocate asked the town manager about these increases. Or tried to, anyway — he didn’t return our calls. His secretary says he was stuck in various meetings.

Anyway, those increases were in the old budget, the one rejected in the referendum. Maybe the new version will be more to the association’s liking?

"Nobody’s seen it yet," said Judy Aron, the association’s vice-president, on June 22. "The budget’s supposed to be discussed at the next town council meeting [on June 26], and presented to the Finance and Budget Committee the next morning at eight a.m. … Nobody’s put it on the [town] website. How can we discuss the budget if we haven’t seen it?"

Don't Know Their Assets From Their Elbows

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 22, 2007

Don't Know Their Assets From Their Elbows
Reassessment promises higher tax bills for West Hartford

by Jennifer Abel

Life’s full of things that work well individually but clash together. Like plaids and stripes. Toothpaste and orange juice. And high home values and low tax rates.

Wait, what’s wrong with the last pair? West Hartford property owners will soon learn.

"[There’s] going to be a significant tax increase for many people," says Judy Aron of the West Hartford Taxpayers’ Association. Here’s why: every so often, town governments throughout Connecticut reassess the properties in their jurisdictions, to determine their values for tax purposes. West Hartford’s latest assessment (called a revaluation) took place last year, and residents received their property-value notices in October.

The last revaluation before that was in 1999. And between then and 2006 came this thing called the "housing bubble," where home prices rose far faster than incomes. According to Joanne Ferraresso, the city’s director of sssessment, in 1999 (through 2005) the average assessment for a single-family home in West Hartford was $135,570, compared to $234,300 last October.

That’s an increase of over 70 percent, and even that only applies to homes fair-to-middling by city standards. Overall, "values rose anywhere from 60 to 200 percent," says city spokesperson Renee McCue.

Quite a windfall for anyone who wants to sell a house bought in 1999, but a mixed blessing for those who simply wish to keep living where they are. More value in the home means more value to be taxed.

So where do those low tax rates come in? Next month, in light of the increased assessments, the town’s going to lower its mill rate, used to determine property taxes.

Though mill sounds like million it actually comes from the Latin mille, meaning thousand. It’s a dollar of tax on every $1,000 in value, and since West Hartford’s mill rate was 46.19 last year, homeowners had to pay $46.19 for every $1,000 their home was worth. But this year, "our town manager mentioned something about the mill rate going down almost 10 points," said Judy Aron. "But the reality is, the value of homes have gone up proportionately more than the mill rates will go down."

Actually, the rate is likely to drop at least 15 points, according to the town manager’s report to the council. Though it’s too early to say for sure, the new rate is expected to be around 31.43.

Not low enough, says Aron. She calculated that, with her home’s increased assessment, the mill rate would have to go down to 24.69 for her tax bill to match last year’s. What’s worse for homeowners is that they’re paying taxes on profits they won’t see unless they sell their house. "We’re paying taxes on unrealized capital gains," Aron said.

Ferraresso agrees. "The basis for property tax in Connecticut is ad valorum, meaning it’s based on the value of the property, not your ability to pay or the services you use."

The mill rate is calculated every year, basically by taking the cost of the city budget and dividing it by the property on the grand list. Since the list remains essentially the same between revaluations, residents see their mill rates rise each year and recognize that for the tax increase it is. This year, with the rate drop, some might not realize how much they’ll owe until their tax bills arrive in June.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

How much tax money does West Hartford's Board of Education spend on catered meals for itself? They won't tell us.

By Jennifer Abel

The current West Hartford school budget is close to $118 million, about $11,670 per student. According to the CIA World Factbook, this is more than the per capita income of 141 of Earth's 230 nations.

According to the board of education it's still not enough to teach the kids, so they're requesting an extra $7.5 million next year.

There's already grumbling in town about how taxes, once again, are rising higher than inflation. And since the school budget is over 60 percent of the town's total, much of that grumbling's directed toward school spending. It's mostly off-the-record, though, because people who speak against school spending are branded as selfish.

The budget's not presented in a line-item form that lists individual expenses. So when we first heard complaints about the board allegedly having breakfasts and lunches catered to meetings on the taxpayers' dime, we didn't know if this was a big deal or not because we couldn't go to the budget and read "Refreshments: X dollars."

Are we talking "coffee and donuts" or "five-course banquets"? A woman at the Avon Board of Ed. said she usually makes coffee for meetings; Simsbury said they'll provide a meal if they are scheduled back-to-back during the dinner hour. This sounds reasonable; is that what West Hartford's doing?

It'll be simple to ask the board of ed. about this, we thought. Their offices are right on the top floor of town hall. So we stopped by and were eventually referred to Chip Ward, the finance director, who responded to our question with a friendly smile and the suggestion that we make a Freedom of Information request. We handed over the FOI letter we'd printed out in case he said that.

When writing FOI requests, remember that if the person wanted to give you this info, you wouldn't be jumping through FOI hoops to begin with. So you must word your letter carefully, lest you leave a loophole through which the answer can escape.

Alas, we goofed. Our Feb. 6 letter asked, among other things, the cost and number of catered meals provided at board of education meetings. Ward's response, dated Feb. 14 and received Feb. 28, said: "Catered meals are not provided at board of education meetings. They have been provided at an ad hoc basis at special meetings." Oops. Ward mentioned one meal that cost $254.15, and was listed in the budget under "Communications."

Our next letter on Feb. 29 was much wordier and covered (we hope) all meetings having anything to do with the board in any official capacity. Ward's response, dated March 5, said "please be advised that as we are in the midst of budget preparation, it will take several weeks to compile the information requested."

Which means we didn't get it before the school budget hearing on March 27. So how much money are we talking about here? We have no idea.

Billing For The Billets

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 6, 2008

Billing For The Billets

In Connecticut, when you get out of jail, you may get a bill from the state for your room and board

By Jennifer Abel

Afew years ago the Chinese government made a great humanitarian leap forward by outfitting "death vans" with lethal-injection tools and then driving through the countryside executing prisoners along the way. This was a huge improvement over the old system, where they shot you in your own village and then billed your family for the bullet. As the Times of London reported in 2005, "Death by injection costs the state about £63 but is free to the victim's relatives."

Connecticut's pay-for-your-punishment plan differs from the old Chinese model in significant ways, the most important one being that executions are mercifully rare and always free of charge. Prison sentences are another matter; the Department of Corrections runs a spotty program to make (some) inmates pay for their incarceration.

The intent is to recoup actual costs. So we called to let DOC brag about the program's success. The annual Corrections budget "for this year is about $665 million," said spokesman Brian Garnett. The individual cost per inmate depends on where they're kept. "Typically, they're charged the rate of their facility. Minimum security ranges from $50 or $60 [per day], maximum security up to $150."

But he didn't know how much money the DOC got from inmates; that question's for the Department of Administrative Services, which handles the collections.

Spokesman John McKay told us "We had 781 cases in 2007, collected $3.3 million out of those cases." That's just under 0.5 percent of the annual cost.

One reason it's so low is that not every inmate's slated for reimbursement. "There's a tracking system," McKay said. Those who are asked to pay back include "anyone [who] receives a windfall, proceeds from a claim or any type of lawsuit, they're required to reimburse the state."

That also includes inheritances, but "not income," according to McKay. Say for example that a corrupt ex-governor went to prison, got out and then used his connections to land a cushy six-figure consulting-type job at taxpayer expense. How much money did former Governor Rowland pay for his stint in the clink?

"Rowland was in a Federal prison," McKay pointed out. "That doesn't apply."

Many people like the idea of having the state charge for the punishments it doles out. "I'm a law-abiding citizen and I don't get free room and board, so why should criminals?" they say.

We posed the question to Bridgeport attorney Antonio Ponvert. "The measure of our society and how advanced we think we are is ... how we treat the least among us," he said. "If people want to punish and then exact that last ounce of blood, that says something about our society and what kind of people we are."

Thing is, even though Connecticut's program has the stated goal of "fiscal responsibility" rather than "screw you," in practice it seems to work more like the latter.

Take the case of Mark Strickland. He was no angel; several years ago he served time for sexual assault and multiple burglaries. While in prison he won $250,000 in a court settlement against a third party. And had his victims then sued him for damages, we'd cheer them on.

But the state sued him instead. Strickland got that money from a local diocese of the Catholic Church, because back in the '70s he was a little boy unwillingly involved in what later became known as "that priest-molestation scandal."

After paying the state for his time in stir and his lawyer's fees he had only $40,000 left. Last anyone heard, he's living in poverty somewhere in Florida. Although he'd be slightly better off nowadays, according to state Rep. Mike Lawlor, who said that the law changed in 2004. "Now attorney's fees and the costs of the case are excluded."

What's not excluded are cases against the DOC itself. If you're an inmate who sues for mistreatment, or the family member of an inmate killed by the guards, the DOC will pay out any judgments and then take the money right back. "I've had cases," said Ponvert, "where someone's killed in custody [and the state wants] reimbursement for the very day he was killed."

In 1999 a paranoid schizophrenic inmate named Bryant Wiseman stopped receiving his anti-psychotic medication. Two days later he died while being restrained by prison guards. His mother brought a wrongful-death suit against the DOC, and lost. Had she won, however, the state would've charged for the tender loving care her son received in its custody.

We told Ponvert we understood how the program was legal — obviously, because the lawmakers said so — but couldn't understand how it was constitutional. If you take away a man's liberty, then turn around and charge him for the privilege, how does that not run afoul of the "double jeopardy" clause? You can't punish someone twice for the same crime.

"It may not be legal," he said. "I think it's unconstitutional interference with federal civil rights standards [which] allow a citizen to sue the government if the government infringes on their constitutional rights."

It's hard to feel sympathy for some of the folks swept up in the payback net. And yet, we speculated to Ponvert, you could say that crime and punishment is the one area of government that should always run a deficit. Taking away a man's liberty is such a serious matter that you don't want it to be cheap and easy and convenient.

"It all comes back to two things," Ponvert said. "One is enlightened self-interest. No matter how anti-prisoner you are, 95 percent of them are going back into the community ... do you want them living under a debt they'll never be able to satisfy?"

More ominous, says Ponvert, is the message this sends to prison guards. "It allows guards at the DOC to mistreat people with impunity, and creates disincentives to behave like decent human beings according to the Constitution."

Slaves To The Snow

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 6, 2008

Slaves To The Snow

Why can the town government force you to shovel their sidewalks? Nobody seems to know.

By Jennifer Abel

Ah, the sublime New England joy of awakening to discover that overnight, Mother Nature has quilted the earth beneath a gentle blanket of snow.

That idyllic morning scenario only applies to apartment dwellers, or homeowners in the sticks. Those in West Hartford or anywhere else urban enough to have sidewalks in front of their houses have to get dressed and go shovel off some town property; specifically, that sidewalk we mentioned.

This is hardly unique to West Hartford. It applies pretty much wherever public walkways exist. Here in Connecticut the rule is generally that the sidewalk is public property, but you personally have to maintain it, while in other states it's more the sidewalk is yours, but everybody gets to use it and you have to make sure there's no snow or ice in their way.

Walking through snow and ice is, of course, very annoying and you can slip if you're not careful. Shoveling sidewalks is also annoying, which is probably why the government figures "better you should do it than us."

Disclosure: our current living arrangement makes us exempt from any sidewalk-maintenance regulations. And no matter how annoying the sound of scraping shovels might get, we're too well-bred to even think about ever opening our window and shouting "Stop shoveling so loudly! You're disturbing us here in our cozy warm bed!"

But when West Hartford's e-mail alert service sent out a reminder that the town expects everyone to clean out their sidewalks within 12 hours of snowfall's end (and is also sponsoring some wholesome activities for children), we did call to wonder how these snow-removal mandates got around the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

That's the one which reads "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." This includes West Hartford, most of whose residents lack criminal records.

Town police recommended we bring our questions to the corporation counsel (the attorneys who handle legal matters for the town). Assistant counsel Kimberly Boneham told us "the General Assembly has two statutes allowing towns to require homeowners to clear ice and snow off the sidewalks."

We had no doubt the town was acting within the confines of the law, we told her; what we couldn't understand was how the law passed constitutional muster in the first place. "The court interpretation is 'for the greater good,'" Boneham said.

But there's no "greater good" exemption in the 13th amendment. Boneham suggested we speak to the legislature, so we called the state Senate clerks' office to ask if anybody had ever tried challenging the sidewalk regulations on constitutional grounds, assured him that yes, we were serious but wouldn't be offended if anybody laughed, and after a slightly awkward pause the guy told us, "You'd have to look that up in the [legislative] law library."

And we would've done it, too, only we didn't have time because we had to scrape all the ice and snow off our car.

No Smokin' Babes

originally published in the Hartford Advocate February 28, 2008

No Smokin' Babes

A new law will ban smoking in cars with children

By Jennifer Abel

Think of the children! Seriously, think about them for a second: awww. Truly they are precious, and fragile in many ways. When new laws are proposed in the name of "the children," that generally means more restrictions on adults.

State Senate bill 268, "An Act Prohibiting Smoking In Vehicles With Minor Children," is no exception. It's currently before the Children's Committee, where it was introduced by Senator Henry Genga of East Hartford.

When we called Genga about the bill he told us, "Last year it was introduced ... from a request from a boy who was 9 years old."

America is unique among the world's democratic republics, few of whom let 9-year-olds so much as vote, let alone help write the laws of the land. Though the child's vision was diluted in committee, Genga said: "We reduced it to 'no smoking in cars with small children' ... it's enforceable, and it's practical."

The bill defines smoking as the act of holding "a cigarette, cigar, pipe or similar device ... in the immediate proximity of [the] mouth." It need not actually be lit. And Genga's "small children" are those required to ride in child-restraint seats: 6 years or younger and weighing less than 60 pounds. When asked the rationale for this legislation, Genga recited the usual statistics about how secondhand smoke is very bad for you: poisons, toxins, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, cancer and death.

"I don't believe people know how bad secondhand smoke is to small children," he said.

We wondered about that ourselves, we told him. Up through the mid-'90s you could smoke pretty much everywhere: restaurants, waiting rooms, common areas of shopping malls. Through the '60s and '70s you could even smoke in hospitals and doctors' offices.

"We didn't know then how bad it was," Genga said.

Right, we said, but if secondhand smoke is as harmful as all that, why don't most Americans old enough to remember the 20th century have lung disease by now? And why aren't all the Baby Boomers dead?

"Every time a bullet is fired at someone, do they die?" Genga asked. We didn't agree that smoking upwind of a person is analogous to shooting at them, but Genga told us, "[The Surgeon General] said in 2006, 'There is no risk-free exposure to secondhand smoke.' It raises the risk of health problems 20 to 30 percent in non-smokers."

Which brought us back to our original point, we said; if secondhand smoke is that dangerous then most adults over 25 should have lung or respiratory problems by now, because as kids their exposure to —

"I'm not focusing on that," Genga said impatiently. "I'm focusing on the little children. In cars. An enclosed space."

So if enclosed spaces are the issue here, will the bill make an exemption for smoking in open-top convertibles?

No, Genga said firmly. "If you're in a vehicle with a child in a restraint seat, no smoking."

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, in room 1C of the Legislative Office Building. Those who wish to speak can sign up starting two hours beforehand.

Poker Buddies, Wink Wink

originally published in the Hartford Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly, August 14, 2007

Poker Buddies, Wink Wink

It's illegal to play poker for money, unless you're on tribal land or among "friends"

By Jennifer Abel

Here’s a riddle: how is playing cards like having sex? Answer: it’s legal for two (or more) consenting adults to do it together so long as nobody gains financially. But the second capitalism gets involved, then you are (according to the government) an officially Bad Person who deserves to go to jail.

Poker’s pretty popular these days, both in person and online, so the Division of Special Revenue is reminding everybody not to play for money. Paul Young, the division’s executive director, said in a press release last month that Connecticut law makes gambling illegal in most instances.

“Poker is clearly a prohibited form of gambling and soliciting others to partake in a form of prohibited gambling is a violation of the State’s criminal statutes,” Young wrote. “We also have the Tribal agreements to consider.”

These tribal agreements boil down to: it’s legal for the state’s Indian tribes to make money from poker games, and illegal for everybody else.

That sounds straightforward, if unfair. But here’s a confusing wrinkle: playing poker for money is illegal outside of an Indian casino, unless it’s done among friends.

They say a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. How long does it take for a stranger to acquire legal friend status for poker-playing purposes in Connecticut? Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney general, is the guy ultimately responsible for prosecuting and penalizing those who violate the poker laws. He told the Advocate, “The rule has always been: gambling is prohibited in state, but social games are permitted. Permissible forms include people who know each other, with a social connection.”

However, social connections made via the Internet don’t seem to apply. As Paul Young said, “The opportunity to wager over the Internet on a variety of activities, including casino games, is very attractive to many people; however, such activity is illegal in Connecticut.” But why should the law distinguish between social activities that take place online versus in meat-space?

“It’s an illegal activity,” Young explained. Before anybody can play Internet poker without going to jail, “there has to be a law on the books permitting it.” And there isn’t. So the Advocate asked: where card games are concerned, would it be accurate to say that which is not allowed is prohibited?

“It is prohibited,” Young agreed.

Unless it’s among friends. So how long does it take for two strangers to legally qualify?

“We haven’t really traveled down that road … I think it’s something the courts would have to work on,” Young said.

The Advocate also wondered if sexual activity could form the foundation of a legal friendship. If you meet a stranger at six o’clock and have sex with him at six-fifteen, can you legally play poker in the afterglow?

There’s really no polite way to ask a government official such a question, so you really can’t blame the director of Connecticut’s Division of Special Revenue for adopting a rather frosty tone of voice when he answered, “I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”

Sincere advice: it’s not worth having sex with somebody just so you can play poker later. Instead, go to a teenage jewelry store like Claire’s or The Icing, where you and your poker buddy can buy matching necklaces declaring yourselves “B.F.F.” (Best Friends Forever). This jewelry will turn your skin green if you wear it too long, but green skin beats the heck out of a jail sentence.

Putting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 15, 2007

Putting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

West Hartford’s venture into the mini-golf business annoys the skatekids

By Jennifer Abel

Despite golf’s reputation as a rich man’s game, it’s downright proletarian in Connecticut. Town governments throughout the state own and subsidize courses. Even working-class cities like Waterbury and Norwich sport municipal golf facilities, so it’s no surprise a wealthy town like West Hartford does too: two in fact, the course at Rockledge and the course at Buena Vista.

No, a city golf course isn’t bragworthy in Connecticut. But West Hartford’s about to join a more exclusive circle, though "exclusive" might be the wrong word for a mini-golf course, which the city intends to build at the Buena Vista complex.

Subsidized mini-golf courses are nowhere near as common as their more couth cousins; only Stratford has one, at its Gulls Landing park. So how’s that working out? The course is closed for the season, but according to The Putting Penguin, an online "unofficial guide to miniature golf courses," it’s a shabby example of the genus Minigolfus made tolerable by its low admission price.

"The carpets are very worn and definitely need to be replaced," says the site’s review. "The water hazards also need to be cleaned … the bricks that line the course are loose." If Gulls Landing is any indication, the difference between a publicly and privately owned mini-golf course is like that between the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls.

Mini golf. The phrase inspires visions of sticky children hitting balls into the mouths of clowns or between rotating windmill blades. And (no slight intended against the many fine people in the miniature-golf industry) it could even be said that involvement in the business demeans the majesty of government, somehow.

But West Hartford’s course will be completely tasteful, says Jim Capodiece, the city’s director of leisure services.

"The intention is to fit it into the environment, not to make it a circus type of course," he said. Capodiece can’t yet predict when the course will be complete; the city is currently "regarding conceptual plans" with a course designer.

To call these publicly owned golf courses "subsidized" isn’t entirely accurate. As Capodiece said, "Buena Vista golf course [covers its] operating costs. … Some years the golf course runs a little on the positive side, some years a little negative." (The current rates for a nine-hole game vary from nine or ten dollars for city residents to twelve or thirteen for out-of-towners.)

Capodiece and the city say the mini-golf addition would be a wonderful recreational opportunity for families, and they’re almost certainly right. But would it improve the current status quo? Not everyone says yes. City resident Ed Lennig thinks that replacing any part of Buena Vista’s current set-up with a mini-golf course would be a loss.

"[Buena Vista] is one of the best family courses around," Lennig said in a phone interview. "A good training course if you’re teaching your kids how to play the game." He credits Buena Vista’s family friendliness to its small size. It’s a nine-hole course, only half the standard 18 where, Lennig says, "if someone can’t play well it takes them forever to play through … a kid learning to play might swing at the ball a few times and when he finally hits it, it only goes five yards."

The loss of a great training course: one potential reason to oppose the city’s future mini-golf proposal. But there’s another (even ignoring any possible "government-owned mini-golf" concerns): there’s plenty of wholesome family stuff to do in West Hartford already. Some say the course’s estimated $300,000 cost could be better spent appealing to other age groups. Like maybe teenagers. With an interest in skateboarding.

Chau Pham, a junior at Hall High School, discussed in an e-mail the mini-golf course and other developments going on in town. "It seems as though these developments are directed more toward either older or younger generations," he wrote.

Pham belongs to Build Us A Skatepark, a local lobbying group that hasn’t quite got around to lobbying the city yet but has been gathering members on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

"As of right now, it’s just kind of a collection of people," says the group’s teenage leader and founder, Devin Castaldi-Micca. "We haven’t actually begun lobbying or thinking about it."
The group’s members are frustrated by the lack of legal places to skate in the city. So where do they skate? "Pretty much all over, anywhere there’s asphalt," said Castaldi-Micca. "The Center, but you get kicked out in five minutes. … Sometimes they even call the police."

Pham said such a park would benefit not only skateboarders, but the rest of the town as well. "The town itself would be free of teenagers just barely skimming the law to catch a good ride and we would not have to be so fearful of being punished for just carrying our skateboards in a high-traffic area."

Although the group hasn’t formally petitioned the city yet, Capodiece was nonetheless aware of their concerns. "We’ve heard from a variety of youth groups who want a skatepark … one group came forward about six months ago, and we told them about the processes necessary to request this, but we haven’t heard back from them since."

The city’s not averse to the idea of a skatepark, Capodiece says. "I believe there may be some discussion in this year’s budget to take capital improvements money to build a skatepark … it depends on how much money other groups can raise. I don’t think you’ll see the town pay the entire bill, unless we get a grant."

So why pay the cost of a mini-golf course? "A mini-golf course would be a revenue producer; a skatepark wouldn’t."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hell Hath No Furries

originally published in the Hartford Advocate November 1, 2007

Hell Hath No Furries

For some people, dressing up like a stuffed animal is more than just a hobby. It's a way of life. Our reporter attends the 2007 Furries convention.

By Jennifer Abel

When I said I'd be going to a Furry convention incognito as a black cat, the response was almost unanimous: what the hell's a Furry?

What fun to answer. Furries, I explained, are like transvestites with an added twist: instead of claiming to be a woman trapped in a man's body, they say they're animals in human bodies. And wear animal outfits called "fursuits," similar to the costumes worn by cartoon characters at theme parks only with openings in sexually strategic places.

"How do you know all this?" came the next question, which I answered with links to sources ranging from "those crazy Americans" British documentaries to a 2001 Vanity Fair piece that still inspires growls among Furries — who say the portrayals of bestiality, animal-suited sex and a near-complete lack of social skills in the article — misrepresents Furrydom as a whole.

At any rate, when I learned there'd be a Halloween convention called FurFright at Waterbury's Grand Hotel I immediately e-mailed a request for a press pass, and got a polite-yet-firm response discussing their strict no-media policy (common among Furry gatherings, I learned, since the Vanity Fair story).

Thus I went undercover, after visiting a Halloween store to buy a belled collar, velvet cat ears and a nice piece of tail (30 inches, if you think length matters).

The best-known fan conventions, or cons, are probably the Star Trek gatherings where aficionados pay good money to wear Vulcan ears, discuss Federation arcana and rub shoulders with actors from the show.

Furrydom got its start at sci-fi and comic cons featuring art displays of human-animal or human-alien hybrids. (Think of all those sexy aliens from Stars Trek and Wars who look exactly like hot women wearing body paint and forehead prosthetics.)

Broadly, "Furry" refers to any fan of anthropomorphic-animal art or literature. Furrydom broke out of the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto and became its own subculture in the '90s, when the Internet made it easy for people with diverse interests to find each other.

FurFright was harder to get into than any sci-fi or comic con I've seen. Con admission's usually easy: fork over your entrance fee and get a badge. The Furries demanded photo ID. You also had to fill out an electronic form with your name, age and address, and choose from a list of available species; I picked "Feline/Cat."

The man at the registration desk looked suspiciously at my driver's license. Glanced at his computer. Back at the license. Now at me. Did that e-mail put my name on a media blackball list?

Then I remembered. "The change-of-address sticker's on the back," I said of my license. "And my hair's black because I was still Goth then."

He laughed and held the license next to my face. "I guess it does look like you."

How disheartening.

But despite the difficulty getting in, the convention looked much like any other: people in street clothes, folks in full costume, and others in everyday garb with a con accessory or two: no superhero capes, but plenty of animal tails poking out from shirt bottoms.

The day's first discussion panel, advertised as an "icebreaker," was moderated by a man in his 40s who wore jeans and a Trix Rabbit shirt, and called himself Wally Wabbit. There were also three men who self-identified as a Skunk, Coyote and Dog. Coyote wore jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of his namesake, a tail and paw-shaped bedroom slippers. Everyone else wore street clothes. (By dint of my ears and tail, I looked more animalistic than half the people there.)

Skunk, a nice-looking man somewhere in his 30s, introduced himself as a computer engineer from the Boston area. Coyote had another technical job. Both recognized me as someone who'd never been to a Furry convention before.

That's another difference between a Furry con and its sci-fi/fantasy predecessors: the majority of the Furries knew each other, either from earlier cons or Internet chat rooms. Walk through a sci-fi or comic con and you'll get no shortage of party invitations to check out some space-opera bootleg or a copy of the latest anime craze. I found no open invitations from strangers among the Furries.

The dealers' room, another convention staple, had a strict no-photographs rule, likely due to the original artwork for sale within. Most showed human bodies with animal heads and tails, usually in everyday human situations.

A few dealers had albums with adults-only warnings on the covers. The animal-accented human bodies inside were nude, posing alone or in softcore situations with others. (There's no apparent bias against interspecies coupling in Furrydom.)

Still, the adult stuff was rare and hidden from view. Everything else was child-safe: animal T-shirts, high-quality plush dolls and cartoons of the sort you find in kids' books. By fan-convention standards, it was all pretty tame.

Beside the dealers' and panel rooms, most convention space focused on social activities: group-action video games and Dance Dance Revolution machines, or tables for card and board games. Another room showed animal-themed movies like Chicken Run all day.

Outside the dealers' room I ran into Coyote, who invited me to join a group of fursuiters for dinner at a nearby buffet.

"I'm not a fursuiter," I said.

"Yes, you are," he replied, pointing to my ears and tail. I smiled and agreed to meet him later.

Earlier, I'd noticed a room labeled "Headless Lounge, for fursuiters, performers and staff only." Once I knew I qualified as a fursuiter, I went in for a look.

And left almost immediately. The room was far too cold for anyone in street clothes. Multiple fans spinning full blast amplified the already-high air conditioning, and enormous tubs of ice and chilled drinks covered the tables. People in fursuits with the heads off reclined on the floor. The Headless Lounge was a cooldown room, protecting people in heavy fursuits from dehydration or heatstroke.

When a few dozen of us met in the lobby for dinner, those of us with cars were asked to give rides to those without. I drove Skunk and his friend Monkey (in full-human garb) to a nearby buffet.

Monkey, a college student, mentioned his concern over the next big Furry con: it was scheduled for when he'd be at home, so he needed an excuse to give his parents.

"Your parents don't know?" I asked.

"No. They wouldn't approve."

"I don't see why. I've seen much weirder stuff at sci-fi and comic cons than anything here."

"Media sensationalism," Skunk said. "When the media does a story about Fur fandom, they pick the weirdest, most extreme people and say we're all like that."

No comment from me. I later asked him what the real, non-sensational face of Furry fandom looks like.

"It all varies," he said. "Some people just like anthropomorphic art. As for people relating to animals, it ranges from 'I think they're cool' to 'I have traits in common, like I'm quiet as a mouse,' to 'Yes, I am a wolf in a human body and I must run free with my furry brothers!'"

I laughed. "Still beats being a Klingon. So what makes you a skunk?"

"I like the striking colors ... and I was a maladjusted kid. When a skunk walks into the room, everybody leaves."

After dinner the con was more crowded, and lots of full-fursuiters milled about. Over the low murmur of voices I heard the constant click of cameras: Fursuiters showing off their costumes and posing for pictures.

Skunk suggested I attend the "Friday Furpocalypse" which, despite its ominous name, consisted of organized games ranging from relay races to Furry-themed versions of game shows. During the "Furry Match Game," a man wearing a hunter costume and carrying a giant plush carrot walked in, stalked by a terrifying mutant rabbit with enormous fangs and oversized claws.

Children's cartoons, Red Cross fundraisers, team sports and adult content kept discreetly out of sight. How wholesome.

Every half-hour I went to the bathroom to take notes in a private stall, and at 9 p.m. wrote: "May as well have gone to a Catholic school Halloween party. The dance starts in half an hour. Maybe something will happen there."

When I heard the strains of "Hungry Like The Wolf" emanating from the ballroom, I walked in to see a little toddler girl dancing with someone in a bunny suit. A minute later the girl abandoned the bunny to pull a cartoon fox onto the dance floor. She got more excited each time a new animal entered the room (good thing the mutant rabbit had left).

One man leaning against the wall surveyed the scene with a proud expression. "She's definitely my daughter," he smiled at me. "Look how much fun she's having."

"Of course," I said. "She's in a roomful of giant stuffed animals all come to life and dancing with her."

"You know," her father said reflectively, "I haven't been to a con since Anthrocon [another Furry gathering] a few years ago. These are the only people I trust. There's definitely a friendly vibe here."

There was. But what about the sex vibes I'd hoped to find? If I'd peeked behind every hotel-room door I probably would've found something, but that's true at any gathering of hundreds of people far from home. The Furry convention wasn't a sex thing but the exact opposite: an innocent world of children's-book animals, where a 3-year-old can roam with impunity and a maladjusted kid can enter the room with nobody leaving.

In 2002 a sociologist named David Rust published "The Sociology of Furry Fandom," based on surveys he'd taken in the late '90s. Rust noted that Furries tend to have a higher percentage of homosexuals than the regular population, but the "perception that Furries tend to be sexually overt and promiscuous" is "skewed."

And while the Furries obviously have a shared interest in anthropomorphic themes, their defining characteristics found by Rust were "a higher tolerance (than within mainstream culture) for displays of affection or friendliness" and for "variety in sexual orientation and activity."

Still, none of that sexual openness was visible to me. At 11:30 p.m. I attended an adults-only panel called "Safety Furst." Was this, then, where the infamous Furry sleaze was to be found? Maybe a lesson on how to do bunnysuit bondage without suffocating your partner?

Nope. Same safe-sex/anti-STD lecture you can find in any middle school.

Backdoor Dealings

originally published in the Hartford Advocate April 3, 2008

Backdoor Dealings

A proposed bill that would get DCF off the back of homeschooling parents is caught in a political war between competing lawmakers

By Jennifer Abel

There's a bait-and-switch scam going on in the General Assembly where the homeschooling bill 162 is concerned.

Originally proposed by Rep. Arthur O'Neill, it's supposed to clarify a legal hitch causing problems for Connecticut parents who homeschool.

Here's the deal: when parents withdraw their children from school to teach them at home, the schools have been calling the Department of Children and Families and reporting the parents for "educational neglect." We wrote about this last summer: in all cases the charges against the families were deemed "unsubstantiated," but defending such charges is stressful and expensive for the families.

The problem is that state law doesn't really specify what a parent must do to withdraw his children. So O'Neill proposed a bill which, if ratified, would modify section 10-220 of the state statutes, which lists "Duties of boards of education." Under O'Neill's bill, if a parent sends written notice of intent to withdraw his kids, "the local or regional board of education shall accept such notice and shall deem the child withdrawn immediately."

This draft went to the Legislative Commissioner's Office to be written in bill form, and came out entirely different: the LCO version says nothing about the duties of school boards but would alter section 10-184 of the statutes, "Duties of parents." And it says that if a parent "intends to provide the child with equivalent instruction" at home and sends a letter saying so, the school principal or superintendent "shall immediately accept such notice as evidence the child is receiving equivalent instruction."

Deborah Stevenson, an attorney who heads NHELD (National Home Education Legal Defense), finds this unacceptable. "It's not enough to accept the letter, you must consider the child withdrawn," she argues. "Evidence is not proof."

Besides, acceptance of the letters isn't really the problem: "School districts were accepting them, but not considering the children withdrawn, then calling DCF and charging them with educational neglect."

The new language came out just before the Children's Committee held a public hearing on the bill. "[They] announced a hearing on the original language, but didn't ... realize the language had changed before the hearing." So they voted to revert back to O'Neill's original.

Then the bill went to the Education Committee, where Sen. Thomas Gaffey and Rep. Andrew Fleischmann sit. The Education Committee, in turn, rewrote the bill.

"The last day, Gaffey comes out at committee meetings with another version of this bill with revised language. Nobody asked him to," Stevenson said. Gaffey's "evidence" version, according to Stevenson's interpretation, would not provide parents a way to withdraw their children, but instead give schools authority to decide whether or not to remove a child from its rolls.

And one more thing, Stevenson said, "Gaffey ... said 'O'Neill is fine with this [new] language.'"

Rep. O'Neill disagreed. "I never said 'I support this language' to anybody," he told us.

And what does he think about the changes to his bill?

"Unfortunately, the Education Committee leadership feel that given the choice between listening to Deborah Stevenson or the Department of Education, they'll give the benefit of the doubt to folks they feel are expert, neutral types."

With due respect, we said, we weren't certain the Department of Education could be called "neutral" toward a law which would remove children from their jurisdiction.

"I think the department does have a bit of a bias," O'Neill said. "They may acknowledge there's a right [to homeschool], but I think they're deeply skeptical."

Homeschool advocates like Stevenson feel the Education Committee version of the bill is even worse than the current status quo, we noted.

"Yeah," O'Neill said. "For the first time, it would require parents offer formal notice ... in my bill, once you get that piece of paper, that would be the end of the discussion," O'Neill said.

One more thing, we said: reading the new version of the bill, we couldn't figure out what, exactly, a parent must do for his kids to be withdrawn from school.

"I think you've got it right. The way it's written, if a school takes the attitude 'we own the children,' this helps them. They can go to a judge and say 'may,' not 'must'... it opens the door to aggressive lawyering."

Sen. Gaffey did not return our calls but Rep. Fleischmann did, and said the homeschoolers' concerns about the rewording of the bill were unfounded. "They're mistaken," he says of critics of his version of the bill. "Bills can be worded many ways and accomplish the same ends."

We said that O'Neill himself had concerns with the revisions to his bill.

"That's interesting," said Fleischmann, "because he had discussions with ... Senator Gaffey ... [and said] he was comfortable with the language we were working on.

We indicated O'Neill had told us otherwise.

"I'm really disappointed at the mismatch between the statements Rep. O'Neill made [in the legislature] and what he's saying [to us]," Fleischmann said. "Apparently he changed his mind."

We called O'Neill again to discuss our chat with Fleischmann.

"I explained to [Fleischmann] I was doing this on the homeschoolers' behalf, and they were not happy ... that was the only conversation I had with him," O'Neill said.

Hookers Are Bad, Sez Blumenthal

"News brief" originally published in the Hartford Advocate April 3, 2008

Hookers Are Bad, Sez Blumenthal

In a March 27 press release, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal declared himself shocked — shocked! — to discover that hookers sometimes advertise on Craigslist.

"In spite of rules banning such content," the release indignantly sputters, "Craiglist's [sic] 'erotic services' section is rife with ads containing explicit language and images bordering on pornographic, as well as hourly rates and descriptions of services clearly sexual in nature." In a letter to Craigslist attorneys, Blumenthal declared himself "especially troubled that Craigslist has disregarded and dismissed this serious and growing problem."

An informal poll of our male acquaintances indicates that they do often find something growing when they gaze upon such ads. However, they did not classify such growth as a "problem" and we find it impossible to view it as anything "serious."

At any rate, Blumenthal notes that his previous attempts at a cure only made the presumptive disease worse: "As a small step in response to my concerns, Craigslist now requires anyone posting a listing in the erotic services section to provide a phone number. This step, however, will hardly deter the prostitution problem on the site, and may indeed make it worse. Many of the most graphic solicitations already include a telephone number to enable prospective patrons of their services to contact them."

We probably shouldn't have laughed as hard as we did, when we read that. In fact, we probably shouldn't have laughed at all.

Jennifer Abel

Barking Mad

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 29, 2007

Barking Mad

A Zoning Debate Over 22 Shih Tzus In One House Has West Hartford Going To The Dogs

By Jennifer Abel

Does the law exist to serve people, or do people exist to serve the law? The question sounds like fodder for a college bull session among legal majors, but it’s more than academic for West Hartford resident and dog owner Faith Kilburn. “If the law is capricious and arbitrary, and I can show no harm is caused, then what’s it all about?” she asked.

Basically, it’s about a town ordinance limiting residents to ownership of no more than two adult dogs (three if the person has a kennel permit). The rule has the most rational of rationales: even if you think government should be hands-off regarding what people do with their property, you’d probably agree that a person in his own home shouldn’t have to listen to the constant barking (or smell the unpleasant odors) too many of a neighbor’s dogs can generate.

But Kilburn says her Shih Tzu lapdogs — all 22 of them — cause no problems for her neighbors and the neighbors agree, to such extent that two dozen of them signed a petition requesting that the town make an exception and let Kilburn keep her dogs (who are elderly by canine standards and not likely to be around much longer anyway). So far the zoning board has refused, and Kilburn took it to court after it denied her latest request for a special-use permit last December.

“I filed the court documents almost immediately,” she said. “I had to, because of the fines. They said they could fine me up to $5,000 per month.”

Nobody on the zoning board could or would comment, so only Kilburn’s side can be told. But the zoning board’s position is undeniably backed by the law.

It all started on a Monday morning in 2004 when Kilburn got a phone call from town officials. “[They] said, ‘Faith, someone said you have 16 dogs,’ and I said, ‘No, I have 22.’”

Answers like that make town officials ask to inspect a home. Kilburn says she invited them over that day, but not until Wednesday did officials from the boards of zoning and health come by.

“They came into the house and their eyes got wide as saucers, and they said, ‘How do you do it? Everything is so clean and wonderful!’ … they looked for cleanliness, which they found, and my vet wrote a letter saying all the dogs’ shots were up to date. The vet said nobody could take care of the dogs as well as Faith, and it would be cruel to break them up.”

So the dogs weren’t being mistreated, or living in squalor. What was the problem? Town Zoning Enforcement Officer Eva Espinosa could not be reached for comment and assistant officer Joseph Masi, citing pending litigation, referred questions to Joseph O’Brien, the corporation counsel for West Hartford.

“I believe it was a complaint from a neighbor,” O’Brien said, though he didn’t know the name of the complainant. Kilburn suspects it’s the one who discussed her Shih Tzus at a recent town meeting and said, “I just want the law enforced.” (The neighbor could not be reached for comment.)

All right: there’s at least one person who’s annoyed, if not by the dogs themselves then by the fact that their existence in Kilburn’s home flouts the law. But Kilburn’s immediate neighbors, whom the law presumably protects, signed a petition saying they don’t need its protection.

One of the petition signers was Elizabeth Mayo, whose backyard borders Kilburn’s. Has Mayo had problems with the dogs?

“No, we haven’t,” she said. “We directly back up on [Kilburn’s] property, and the dogs are not a problem.” But surely, 22 dogs must get noisy sometimes. “No, not at all. They’re very quiet. I can’t say that I ever hear them barking.” Emmet Whittlesey, whose signature also graces the petition, agrees.

“We’ve lived here 30 years or so, and I don’t ever know that [the dogs] are there.” And what does he think of the town’s attempts to evict them? “It’s absurd.”

It’s easy to argue for a law’s enforcement when breaking it harms someone. But when nobody’s being hurt, the arguments for enforcement get Kafkaesque. Kilburn describes the reasoning she’d heard from the zoning board when she was denied her special-use permit last December:

“They said it was because they’ve already given me enough time to get rid of the dogs … in 2004 they told me I had to get rid of all but three of them.”

So they won’t let her keep the dogs because she didn’t get rid of the dogs?

“Yes,” Kilburn said. “[Robert] Roach [of the zoning board] said to me, “We don’t want to see you back in this chamber again, because you’ll just ask for another special-use permit.” Roach did not return calls seeking comment.

So the only complaint about the breaking of this law is that the law’s being broken. Are laws upheld for the greater good, or only for their own sake? Faith Kilburn will soon find out.

Beaten Into Submission

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 27, 2008

Beaten Into Submission

Avery Doninger called her school administrators "douchebags" on her blog and was banned from student elections. Now she is fighting for freedom of speech in U.S. District Court.

By Jennifer Abel

Connecticut prides itself on being modern and progressive, so if you tell the average school administrator here, "You run your schools like they did in North Carolina way the hell back in 1837," he'll probably be insulted. But if you say this in the Region 10 school district, covering Harwinton and Burlington, there's a slim chance they'll smile and reply:

"Yes, that 1837 case down South involving a schoolmaster who beat a 6-year-old girl badly enough to leave visible marks on her body for two days was, we felt, a student-discipline precedent worth citing in our defense against Avery Doninger's first-amendment lawsuit."

Seriously, they did that. The school's arguments in the suit against Lewis Mills High School principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 superintendent Paula Schwartz are a joy to behold when you know the hilariously disturbing contexts Doninger's attorney Jon Schoenhorn discovered surrounding them.

We told you about Doninger last September. She's a senior at Lewis Mills in Burlington, and during her junior year served on the student council and as class secretary. As a council member she helped organize an annual music festival called Jamfest, originally to happen in January but repeatedly cancelled and re-scheduled by the administration, which cited problems with the school's newly constructed auditorium.

"They kept pushing back the date ... to April 28," Doninger said. Then the teacher who was to handle the lights had to cancel. The school wouldn't let a student work the lights even though, Doninger said, one worked part-time doing just that at a Torrington theater. And another thing: "They told us it was the taxpayers' auditorium. ... It belongs to everyone in Region 10, not just the school."

So Doninger and her friends went to the computer lab and sent taxpayers a mass e-mail seeking permission to use the auditorium. The people responded by telling Superintendent Schwartz to let the kids have their concert. And the next day in school:

"Ms. Niehoff said, 'I need to talk to you ... as of now Jamfest is cancelled. ... Mrs. Schwartz is really upset, getting all these calls and e-mails.'"

At home that night Doninger wrote an angry LiveJournal blog post that began "Jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in [the] central office." When Schwartz learned of the post a week later, she stripped Doninger of her class secretary position and forbade her from running in the forthcoming election. Though Doninger's name wasn't on the ballot, the students wrote it in anyway and Doninger won the election — or would've if the administration had counted her votes. They didn't.

Doninger and her mother sued for reinstatement, and on Aug. 31, Judge Mark Kravitz ruled with the school, arguing that writing something on a publicly available blog is basically the same as shouting it in the classroom, and can be punished accordingly. Schoenhorn filed an appeal which was heard this month at the Second Circuit Court in New York; a verdict's expected within 30 days.

Region 10's attorney Thomas Gerarde did not return calls seeking comment, and school officials never discuss pending litigation, so the school's defense brief will have to speak for itself.

The school says Doninger deserved to lose her secretary position because the douchebag post showed she lacked "good citizenship." What does that entail? The school hasn't specified, but Principal Niehoff, in earlier testimony, said that if Doninger replaced the arguably vulgar term "douchebags" with "jerks," "meanies" or "expletive deleted," she'd face the same consequences. The implication seems to be that "good citizenship" means "never criticize authority."

The brief adds that "the inculcation of the values of good citizenship and civility to public school students is not a recently fashioned mission designed to provide school authorities a license to suppress speech. ... Rather, this mission has been a core of the American fabric for more than 150 years ..."

The first citation after that is from a 19th-century ruling called State v. Pendergrass, which the brief quotes as follows (ellipses are from the original):

"One of the most sacred duties of parents is to train up and qualify their children, for becoming useful and virtuous members of society; ... the teacher is the substitute of the parents ... and in the exercise of these delegated duties is invested with his power."

The defense brief doesn't mention that this case involved a severe beating inflicted upon a little girl in North Carolina. Nor does it mention the violent context of the next cited quote, from the 1859 case Lander v. Seaver: "Language used to stir up disorder or insubordination, or to heap disgrace upon the schoolmaster has always been subject to punishment."

"That case," said Schoenhorn, "was about a Vermont teacher who beat a student at his home ... [the teacher] lost the case. It looks like they didn't even read the cases. If you're gonna cite cases in a brief you'd better read them first so they don't blow up in your face."

So here's where matters stand now: Region 10's administration argues that it has rights of censorship and punishment over everything students write or say, on-campus and off. If the courts agree, no students in the country will be allowed to ever criticize their teachers. And the justification for this includes some pre-Civil War cases where teachers argued for their right to beat the snot out of disobedient students.

Selling Out For Free

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 7, 2007

Selling Out For Free

Canton’s first selectman does unpaid promotional work for developers

By Jennifer Abel

Everyone agrees it’s unethical for an elected official to profit from her position by doing public-relations work for a private company. But is it still a problem if she does this work for free? That’s the conundrum puzzling Canton now.

Here’s the story: four years ago the W/S Development – S.R. Weiner company proposed paving over a golf course in Canton to build a big shopping mall ("lifestyle center") called The Shoppes at Farmington Valley.

A residents’ group called CARE (Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion), led by president Tom Sevigny, opposed the project. Other town residents, including First Selectman Mary Tomolonius, spoke in favor of it. And CARE ultimately lost — the Shoppes opened in 2004.

Now W/S Development hopes to build similar complexes in other towns, while Tomolonius urges said towns to let the developers in. Furthermore, she’s not speaking as a private citizen, but as the first selectman of Canton.

"W/S Development was really terrific to work with. … W/S Development has been a fantastic neighbor to Canton. … Overall, I can say this has just been a great project for Canton. We’re thrilled with the Shoppes here in Canton."

That’s from a letter she wrote (on official town stationery) in January 2006 to the Board of Selectmen in Reading, Massachusetts. It’s posted on the promotional Web site for Park Square, another lifestyle center W/S hoped to build in Reading. Tomolonius repeated her "great project/we’re thrilled" lines in a video on another W/S Web site, this one hoping to convince Canton’s neighbor Cheshire to welcome a Shoppes of their own.

Tom Sevigny wants to know: who’s this "we" Tomolonius calls thrilled? There are plenty of Cantonites unhappy about the Shoppes, especially since they morphed into something quite different from what the developers first proposed.

"It was originally going to be a ‘Main Street’ with little shops, maybe some office and residential space," Sevigny said. After beginning the project, the scope changed. "Then they said they needed big-box stores like Kohl’s and Shaw’s [because] the market wouldn’t support the little shops." Furthermore, they also "threatened to pull stakes and leave if they didn’t get their changes approved."

Being left with a half-finished project would have been an expensive white elephant for the town. Sevigny views this as a form of bait-and-switch with overtones of blackmail. But Tomolonius pooh-poohed any such suggestion when the Advocate dropped by her office to ask.

Yes, plans changed but "Obviously, when doing something of that scale, like a house, … you make a plan, then make changes as you go along." Little local stores, major national chains — minor changes, really, says Tomolonius. Also, folks at W/S Development "consider [the Shoppes] a lifestyle center, a new type of development, quote unquote, they have the little stores on one side and the big box on the other."

Well, maybe that explains why Tomolonius pushed for the Shoppes in Canton. But what made her decide to promote the company to other towns?

"They had asked me to do something," Tomolonius replied in a matter-of-fact tone. Is she getting paid?

"No!" she answered incredulously.

Even without payment, does she think maybe it might be a little inappropriate for an elected official to promote a private company?

Tomolonius blinked and answered in the same friendly-yet-perplexed tone. "They had asked if I’d do it." And she doesn’t understand why anybody in Canton thinks this is an issue at all — she’s just giving her impressions of the company, and isn’t even being paid.

"Whether she’s being paid or not paid isn’t really the issue," says Sevigny. "The problem is … it was a controversial project." Yet none of the controversy is mentioned in Tomolonius’ official endorsements.

Camille Anthony, a selectman for the town of Reading, Massachusetts, served as board chairman when W/S proposed building a lifestyle center called Park Square there. So when Tomolonius wrote her endorsement letter, she addressed it to Anthony.

Did Reading’s board of selectmen solicit opinions from towns where Weiner had built other properties? "No," she said firmly. "[The letter] was sent unsolicited to the selectmen … we did not appreciate the company having other selectmen" try to persuade them.

The tactic didn’t work. Though the promotional Web site’s still up, the town rejected Park Square. "It was a four to one vote, turned down," Anthony said. "It was an inappropriate development for the site."

So Reading muddles on without Park Square tax dollars. "The number one benefit of the Shoppes … is the commercial revenue that we’re now seeing," Tomolonius’ letter says in part. "As every taxpayer in the town knows; (sic) most of our taxes were dependent on residential taxes. Now … we are seeing a significant shift form (sic) the residential burden to the commercial and that’s a real positive for our town."

Well, lower taxes for homeowners certainly sound good. How much did Sevigny’s tax bill go down once the Shoppes opened for business?

He laughed. "They haven’t. Taxes still go up every year … the first year we had a rush of money from the Shoppes, but even then they cut the education budget."

Tomolonius says taxes would have gone up even more without the Shoppes.

Tomolonius didn’t go out of her way to inform Canton of her promotional work. Sevigny only learned of it after a friend in Cheshire called him to ask, "Did you know your first selectman’s in the [promotional] video?"

Why, no, he didn’t. But he easily found the video on the home page of the Shoppes at Cheshire promotional site.

Based on the video, visitors to W/S Development properties should wear lots of sunblock, since the sun is always shining and there’s no shade in the common areas. (The main difference between a shopping mall and a lifestyle center is apparently this: malls are smaller, indoors and climate-controlled.)

The video’s narrator made the same point as Tomolonius about tax burdens shifting from residents to businesses, and also said things like "The high-quality architectural vernacular creates the look and feel of a New England village center," (while the camera zoomed in on this ornamental yellow tower thing that looks somewhat like a boxy church steeple).

Canton doesn’t have a town board of ethics, so the Advocate called other town ethics commissions and, without mentioning any names, asked how they’d rule if their first selectmen did such volunteer work.

"I personally would consider it inappropriate," says Gilbert Lowell, who sat on the Ethics Commission for East Windsor. "He’s an elected official, he’s supposed to be working for the town … whether he’s getting paid or not isn’t the point."

Adam Sharaf of Simsbury was more nuanced. "There are people who believe it is not necessarily ethical for a sitting selectman to come out publicly for or against a current land-use application … I’m not saying one way or the other."

But this land-use application isn’t in the selectman’s own town. And remember, this hypothetical selectman isn’t getting paid.

"The old Simsbury code required some remuneration to the official [for a violation to occur]," said Sharaf. "But we changed that. The new code is much broader … if it has an appearance of impropriety … it clearly raises a specter."

Family Values

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 14, 2007

Family Values

Constitutional protections don’t apply to Department of Children and Families investigations

by Jennifer Abel

When accused of a crime you’re guaranteed certain constitutional rights, like the right to face and confront your accusers, have a jury trial, know the charges against you and see what evidence the state has to support them. But none of these apply if you’re investigated by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.

"The [DCF] is not a law enforcement agency and does not charge citizens with crimes," department spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said in an e-mail. "Therefore, the agency has no involvement in the enforcement of constitutional rights that relate solely to criminal activity (jury trial, confront accuser)."

"It’s a gimmick," charges Michael Agranoff, an Ellington-based attorney who specializes in defending parents in DCF cases. "Making [these cases] civil instead of criminal is a gimmick to get around the fourth, fifth and sixth amendments to the Constitution."

While DCF does not have the authority to impose prison sentences, Agranoff says: "The ultimate penalty you can face [with DCF] is TPR, Termination of Parental Rights. … Most people I know would rather spend a year in jail than lose custody of their kids."

David and Sherry Preusch of Trumbull faced that threat when they started homeschooling their son William (now 12) in March 2006. William has "functional abdominal pain," a not-uncommon childhood ailment that can almost be described as overactive stomach butterflies: When the boy suffered extreme anxiety, this manifested itself as severe gastro-intestinal pains. And since much of William’s anxiety stemmed from social problems (like bullies) at school, it made sense to his parents to pull him out and educate him at home.

"We tried to work with the school, have him assigned to a class where he had a lot of friends [rather than] a class where he didn’t know anybody," said Sherry.

"The school refused to work with us," David added.

There’s no point in asking for the school’s side of the story; due to the confidentiality laws surrounding children, neither school nor DCF personnel are allowed to comment on specific cases. What might the school say if it could speak on its own behalf? Perhaps that its overworked employees, already facing demands from dozens of parents, had little patience for requests they might have interpreted as "give my little one special treatment lest he get a tummyache."

But if that were the case, the school would have viewed it as a mercy when the Preusches pulled William out. That’s not what happened.

"On Wednesday, I think March 1, we had a meeting with the school," Sherry Preusch recalled. "That Tuesday or Wednesday, my husband sent them a letter, certified mail, return receipt requested, saying we’d be homeschooling our son in accordance with the state statutes … [the school] reported us to DCF on the seventh."

This in itself is not remarkable. "Parents who withdraw their children from public schools to start homeschooling are being reported to DCF for educational neglect," says Deborah Stevenson, the Preusches’ attorney (and the director of National Home Education Legal Defense).

Attorney Agranoff agrees, and explains why. "This isn’t [written] DCF policy, but … DCF considers the schools the first line of defense [against child abuse]."

Kleeblatt insists the department has no bias against homeschoolers. "Homeschooling is not a form of neglect." But DCF still must investigate if a school reports a family.

Back to the Preushes: after the school reported them to DCF, a social worker arrived at their home. "She told me we were being investigated for educational neglect," Sherry Preusch said. "She said the school said William had 34 unexcused absences."

Here’s where things started getting strange. The Preusches showed the Advocate the school’s attendance records for their son: there were indeed 34 absences, but all listed as excused. Why did the school report otherwise? The Preusches had no idea, but figured once they showed the attendance record to the social worker, the investigation would end.

They were wrong. The social worker wanted the Preusches to sign releases granting access to William’s medical records.

"We couldn’t figure out why they needed the medical records," David said. "We gave authorization … our attorney said if we didn’t, they’d kick the investigation up to a higher level because it looks like we’re hiding something."

On dragged the investigation. The Preusches didn’t know why suspicions of educational neglect led to so many questions about doctor visits, and demanded to see the file DCF had against them.

"We were told we had no right to see the files," David recalled.

"Parents always have the right to see evidence against them," Kleeblatt counters.

On April 13, 2006, the Preusches finally received word that DCF had unsubstantiated the claims. But not until May 3 did the Preusches see their files and learn the truth: though the investigation started as one of educational neglect, DCF actually suspected Sherry Preusch had Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, a mental disorder wherein parents deliberately make their children sick in order to get attention and sympathy from medical personnel.

Why should DCF claim to be investigating one charge, while actually investigating another? "Without reading the actual report, we can’t comment on this case," Kleeblatt said. "However, it is very common for additional claims to surface after an investigation has been opened."

No doubt, but the Preusches knew nothing of the additional claim until they saw their file, three weeks after the case was over. Why wasn’t it given to them sooner?

"DCF receives 30 – 50 requests a week for copies of case records," Kleeblatt wrote. "We make every effort to provide them to the client within 30 days. However, state and federal confidentiality laws are quite strict. … Information about persons other than the requestor or the requestor’s children must be redacted. This is a time-consuming process and a large case record may take weeks to properly redact."

In other words: to ensure families don’t know who’s accusing them, sometimes the files must be withheld for several weeks. Meanwhile, Kleeblatt says DCF investigations must be completed within 45 days. He didn’t conclude, "therefore, parents with large case records aren’t likely to get their files while their cases are still active," but that’s the only way the numbers add up.

Connie Kain of Ridgefield had a DCF experience similar to the Preusches’. When Kain adopted her two daughters from Russia, she didn’t know the girls had emotional problems stemming from their early years in hellish Russian orphanages.

"They were never played with, never picked up, never held, never made eye contact." Kain said. Denied these vital emotional connections as babies, Kain’s daughters find it hard to make them now: "They hate adults, hate people trying to love them, and think all adults are out to get them." Since her daughters’ school couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the girls’ special needs, Kain pulled them out for homeschooling, and the school reported the family to DCF.

As with the Preusches, Kain was originally told the investigation dealt with charges of educational neglect; only later did she discover she was being investigated for emotional neglect as well. And she never saw her file or the evidence against her until well after the case was closed.

"DCF never gave me anything in writing … [one day] I asked them if I could record the meeting … and the social worker got incredibly upset, and walked out to get her supervisor. The supervisor was hostile: ‘No, no, you don’t tape my social worker.’"

"There is no law that requires DCF to permit conversations to be recorded," Kleeblatt said. "There is no official DCF policy … decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."

"DCF does an important job," Michael Agranoff says. "Children do need protection ... But DCF can do its job without resorting to extra-legal, unconstitutional tactics."

Teach The Children Well

originally published in the Hartford Advocate May 31, 2007

Teach The Children Well

Homeschooling parents claim the Department of Children and Families is threatening to take custody of their kids

By Jennifer Abel

Connecticut students must spend a minimum number of days in their classrooms each year, or face penalties ranging from failing grades to truancy charges. For kids with medical problems, meeting these attendance requirements can be a challenge.

Some parents who have chosen to homeschool such children claim they’re being harassed for it, after their children’s former schools reported them to the Department of Children and Families for truancy and educational neglect.

"These are not isolated instances," says Deborah Stevenson, director of the National Home Education Legal Defense (and attorney for the cases mentioned here). "Apparently, these instances are becoming quite routine."

But Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the DCF, says these instances never happen at all. "It’s just not done … no parent who schools a child at home should be concerned [about] educational neglect for that reason."

Three points need to be made. First: Parents investigated by DCF aren’t found "guilty" or "not guilty;" Kleeblatt says claims are either "substantiated" or "not substantiated."

Second: None of the DCF personnel in these cases were allowed to speak about them, due to confidentiality laws surrounding children. Even Kleeblatt can only speak about general policies, nothing specific.

And third: Kleeblatt says DCF policy is the opposite of what Stevenson claims is happening. The implication is that she and her clients are lying about everything in this story.

The DCF is currently investigating Rocky Hill resident Christine Canfield over her 9-year-old daughter Jessie. It all started because "[Jessie] has a lot of medical issues," Canfield said. "I wanted to keep those private so she wouldn’t be embarrassed."

Jessie missed a lot of school, but always had doctor’s notes explaining why. Then the school decided to stop accepting them.

"After [Jessie’s] last illness in January, [the school] wanted me to sign medical releases to talk to the doctors … and they said Jessie couldn’t come back to school until I did."

So Canfield decided to homeschool her, and filed a formal Notice of Intent with the school board on February 8. That afternoon the school called DCF, which visited Canfield the next day.

"The DCF investigator said there was an anonymous complaint of ‘educational neglect due to truancy.’ Initially I laughed. I knew where this came from."

She soon stopped laughing. The social workers "wanted to come in and basically invade my home … they said they were conducting an investigation and I was being uncooperative."

Kleeblatt says DCF never forces itself on families, but tries to persuade them to let social workers look around the house and talk to everyone there. Then "if the answer is no, despite our best efforts to convince them it’s in their best interest, we walk away. … We get a court order."

Which DCF is apparently trying to do with Canfield. The day after speaking to the Advocate, she and Stevenson were due in court. How did that go? Stevenson said: "A social worker from DCF is recommending a finding of educational neglect and a commitment of the child to the DCF … the next step is a status conference in early June."

When asked about this, Kleeblatt reiterated that DCF would never seek custody "unless a child is in imminent danger."

But Kleeblatt also said homeschoolers aren’t investigated for educational neglect in the first place. How did this Canfield business even start?

"Did they have permission to homeschool?" Kleeblatt asked.

No. Stevenson says it isn’t needed.

"You’re just assuming everything you’re being told is accurate," Kleeblatt replied. "I’m assuming someone who homeschools has to tell the state [and] show the state the curriculum."

Fine, let’s assume that. What curriculum must the parents show?

That’s for the Board of Education to say, Kleeblatt replied. "If you want to know the requirements, I’m not the one you should ask."

But if DCF doesn’t know the requirements, how do they know what to look for when they suspect parents aren’t meeting them?

Kleeblatt paused. "I’ll have to get back to you on that." And he soon did: "It’s less complicated than I thought." No permission is needed; filing a Notice of Intent as Canfield did is sufficient.

Then why the investigation? The answer must lie in the evidence DCF has against her. But confidentiality makes the file immune to Freedom of Information requests, so the Advocate can’t see it. Neither can Canfield or her attorney.

Stevenson says DCF will "rarely supply the person accused or their attorney with copies of the allegation. … Sometimes they’ll read the allegation slow enough that you can write it down." And no looking at the evidence. "You don’t know who said what or what you’re defending against."

Kleeblatt says that’s nonsense. "We always make the files available to the parents."

Windsor Locks resident Isabelle Hall-Gustafson begs to differ. She says she hasn’t seen the file DCF keeps on her and her 12-year-old son David, whose medical problems caused multiple absences.

He also had doctor’s notes, but according to Hall-Gustafson, "The principal said there were too many diagnoses; he wouldn’t believe them anymore. … He [said David’s] always got one excuse or another, never the same diagnosis.’"

DCF social workers visited Hall-Gustafson on April 9. She allowed them to enter her home and interview the family.

"One week later, my son said, ‘I don’t feel so good but I have to go to school so I don’t get arrested for truancy.’" That day, "He went to the school nurse four times, said, ‘I’m in pain,’ but she sent him back to class each time. … [At home] he went to the bathroom and … the toilet bowl was filled with blood."

Off to the emergency room. David missed school because he was in the hospital, but his mother says the school reported him truant. That led to her homeschooling David at the end of April, and now she’s awaiting a court hearing like the one that has Christine Canfield worried about losing custody of Jessie.

This sounds pretty suspicious. Two parents insisting the schools have it in for their sick children, and the schools can’t tell their side.

Might there be more than the mothers admit? Perhaps the school suspects they’re abusing their children, or even suffering from "Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy," a mental disorder wherein parents, in order to garner sympathy, deliberately make their children ill.

But Stevenson is willing to state on the record that neither Canfield nor Hall-Gustafson are being investigated for physical abuse, only truancy and educational neglect. Kleeblatt implies (but would never say) that Stevenson’s being dishonest. If she is, it would take mere seconds for DCF to expose her as a liar.

Ridgefield resident Connie Kain believes her. Kain had similar DCF problems after she began homeschooling her two sick daughters. Her story sounds as fishy as the previous two — except DCF eventually found the claims of neglect unsubstantiated. Last December Kain notified the school she would withdraw her daughters. And one month later the school reported the family.

"School officials are … supposed to report any incident to DCF within a certain number of hours," Kain said. "What was the incident? Why did they wait so long?"

No way of knowing. But on February 23 she received word that DCF had finally deemed the charges unsubstantiated.

All throughout the investigation, Kain says, neither she nor Stevenson ever got to see the file against her. She finally got it three months after DCF unsubstantiated their claims. "We asked in writing for their accusation. Here’s [DCF’s] tactic: We put everything in writing or an e-mail; they would call and leave voice mails." Kain also says she was forbidden to tape-record meetings between herself and DCF.

Kleeblatt can’t comment on any specific cases, but continues to insist there’s no way any of this can be accurate, as it’s all in violation of DCF policy. Kain disagrees. "That’s how they operate. … They have a reputation [for doing this] and that reputation has to come from somewhere."