Friday, January 18, 2019

New Yorkers need more opportunities for voting access

As you can imagine, I religiously vote in the November elections.

I did miss the opportunity to do so about 12 years ago, though. That day, a customer came to town and it turned into a late evening of work. I didn’t return to Gasport until after the polls closed.

My lack of participation in that election really bothered me. To ensure that would never happen again, I have applied for, received, and utilized absentee ballots in every general election since. While it’s not guaranteed that I would be absent from my district on election day I’ve always noted on my application that the nature of my job can lead to that – I might have to travel out-of-state to see a customer with little notice.

State law and local election commissioners have accommodated me, and I really appreciate it.

But, that can’t work for everyone. The only two factors the New York Constitution addresses as permissible for absentee ballots are absence from the county on Election Day or a disability. It doesn’t afford flexibility for the general busy-ness of life.

When you’re in a position of responsibility uncertainty of your schedule is a certainty. You don’t have to be running a business to meet that criteria -- if you’re a parent or a volunteer you know exactly what I’m talking about. You can be absent from the polls with ease, even though you never left the county. Your kids have school, clubs, and events – and you still have to cook dinner and get those rugrats to bed. If you give of yourself to the community as a coach or scout leader, you know that some evenings can be long. If you’re a volunteer firefighter it’s well known that fires, accidents, and medical events don’t give a hoot about your personal schedule.

A lot of people are busy, doing what they can as moms, dads, entrepreneurs, and volunteers to make the world a better place. We shouldn’t disallow their participation in the polls just because life got in the way. Giving them only a small window of morning hours or evening hours one day each year doesn’t cut it in this modern world. And, really, it never did: A lot of farmers, laborers, and residents of outlying areas skipped on voting before faster transportation came to be (cars instead of horses). A lack of electrical participation has plagued America since Day One. 

More people would vote if they had more time -- or more ways -- to do so. It’s good to see that the New York State Assembly took that up as a charge for 2019.

Already in this young legislative session they introduced and passed bill A07623 which allows for a change of the language of the New York State Constitution, eliminating the requirement for the only two aforementioned barriers for voting (absence, disability). The revised law would allow non-excuse absentee voting, meaning anyone could apply for and receive an absentee ballot, regardless of the reason. This would allow them to fill out the ballot at home without having to fret about finding time to make it to the polls. That’s a winner for so many people.

To make that so there are still two obstacles to overcome.

One is the Senate. Their version of the bill (S0084) has yet to be presented this session as it has languished in their judiciary committee for review since early 2017. Hopefully this is the year – on the heels of the changes in leadership and party control -- that the Senate finally moves on it since the formerly GOP-led version had little interest in it.  

Even if they do pass it, any change can’t happen immediately. It would have to be passed yet again by both houses in the 2020 session before going to the general population to vote on the amendment.

Another proposal passed by the Assembly was A09608B which allows for early voting, a practice already enjoyed by 33 states. Their bill would establish a seven-day early voting period for registered voters to vote in person prior to any election. Each county would be required to provide a set amount of early voting hours, but would have the flexibility to offer hours and polling stations that best meet the needs of its residents.

There is currently not a Senate bill to accompany the Assembly’s, but with this being emphasized not only by the Assembly but also Governor Cuomo it’s safe to say one will be introduced soon.

I encourage you to reach out to your Senator and ask him or her to support both non-excuse absentee ballots and early voting. While those practices are not the cure-all for what ails American civics (participation won’t magically jump to 70 percent), they do offer flexibility for busy people and they ensure that those of us trying to make a difference in the world are also given guaranteed chances to make a difference at the polls, too.

From the 21 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, January 11, 2019

Child abuse training should be mandated by law

The disclosure of sex abuse scandals that besieged the Buffalo Diocese and its parishioners for decades has dominated water cooler talk and reporting in Western New York for almost a year now.

The issue has hit home for a lot of people as the Diocese, under pressure, has released the names of 80 confirmed abusers and the press reports that the real number of accused priests and nuns is 111. With numbers that great, names that well-known, and abuses having taken place in communities large and small, everyone in WNY, it seems, has some sort of connection to an accuser, an accused, or a church where it happened.  

There’s been a lot of handwringing over this. Everyone has wondered the following: How did the community not know this was happening? How could trusted and beloved people and churches hide, even allow, this? How does the Church attempt to make the abused whole again?

It’s been rare, though, that I’ve heard this question posed: How do we prevent this from happening again?

The scandals should be a wakeup call not only for the Catholic Church, but every Church and every organization that serves youth -- as well the parents who entrust their sons and daughters to them. That would run the gamut from paid to volunteer, schools to day cares, little leagues to varsity sports teams, theme parks to summer camps, and music clubs to scout troops.

Every single entity that is of service to minors should ensure that standards are in place to identify, prevent, and report all forms of abuse that happens within and without their non-profits, businesses, and government agencies. They all exist to better the lives of children, and those kids look at those places as safe havens….we have to ensure they are.

Unfortunately, most of the youth-supporting enterprises in the state don’t train their employees and volunteers in that regard. If they do, it’s inadequately-done with perhaps a cursory handout and no interactive education.

That doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about the safety of minors.

The Boy Scouts of America addressed this in the 1980s when they adopted Youth Protection Training (YPT) after some conniving bad seeds infiltrated scout troops to get access to kids. Now, every staff member, volunteer, and scout is required to have some form of YPT.

Whereas the youth receive 3 Rs training (Recognize, Resist, Report) every year that could take a good 30 minutes, the adults – who also receive background checks in order to be accredited – have to receive biannual training that is incredibly in-depth, an hour-and-a-quarter of professionally-done and well-developed training that identifies the causes, symptoms, signals, means, and reporting of physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse, and bullying, while addressing the policies and procedures Scouting has in place to prevent abuse within the organization.

That form of training so critical that I took the BSA’s style of YPT and recently tailored it to outside groups, giving a nearly two-hour class to two local Lutheran churches and their youth volunteers so they could ensure that they could prevent abuse within the any outlets of the churches (Sunday School, vacation bible school, youth group) while also empowering them to identify and help kids who might be abused at home, in school, or elsewhere. Kids, like adults, see churches as a place to be safe, to go for help – you have to make sure that it is a safe place and also a venue through which they can reach out if unspeakable things are happening in their home lives.

What made that training perhaps even more effective than the BSA’s excellent module was the fact that I had a lot of horror stories to relay to the trainees, an outcome of being a member of the press and also knowing people in law enforcement and education. Those stories gave teeth to the training.

This all brings me to this point – everyone who works for and volunteers for youth needs detailed and effective Youth Protection Training. Childhood is too precious, too fleeting; every one of us as caring adults have to ensure that it is free of horrible experiences which then lead to a lifetime of nightmares, depression, insecurity, and, in some cases, that individual unleashing upon children what had happened to him. Children are, for the most part, defenseless…we have an obligation to protect them from the perverts and abusers who want to take advantage of that and do them harm.

I encourage state officials, on the heels of the Buffalo Dioceses scandal which is a tragedy and also a learning moment, to address this and work with psychologists, social workers, law enforcement, and the formerly-abused to develop a YPT system, something similar to that used by Scouting, that can be administered to all who work with minors, either by an online training module, properly educated trainers, or the local Sheriff’s office. It should be a legal requirement -- not some feel-good suggestion that’s not mandatory -- for teachers, coaches, leaders, camp counselors, and the like.

Similarly, every year, school students should be educated on what constitutes all forms of abuse and what they can do to prevent it, report it, and seek help.

Last year, as an outcome of the #MeToo movement, the state put to law that sexual harassment policies and interactive training need to be provided at all workplaces and to all employees annually. If we as a just state can do that to protect adults it only makes legal and moral sense that we can train adults to protect children, too.     

From the 14 January 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News       

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The brown snake -- a snake for all seasons and all places

You might be thinking to yourself “here it is, the dead of winter, and Confer’s writing about snakes?”

I am, because you never know when these limbless reptiles will make themselves known, especially when it’s a brown snake.

Brown snakes, formerly known as DeKay’s snake (the name that I still use for them), are more tolerant of colder temperatures than are other snakes and could make themselves known, even in the winter. If we get a couple of warm days don’t be surprised to see one come out of hibernation. The snake in the accompanying photo made an appearance a few days after Christmas when we enjoyed that one 50-degree day that had us – and the snake -- pining for spring.

Brown snakes hibernate under dead trees and in dens, which in many places of Western New York where rocky outcrops are few means they are sleeping in old woodchuck tunnels and similar mammalian homes. It doesn’t take much of a flow of warm air in those airy tunnels or under a log to wake them up.

These snakes are the second-most common serpent on the Niagara Frontier, just behind the ubiquitous garter snake. You wouldn’t know that, though, because they are rarely seen.

That’s because DeKay’s snakes spend most of their life hidden. Rather than moving about in the open in search of mice, frogs, and other critters consumed by larger snakes, they live under things – leaves, dead bark, logs, rocks, and mulch. They spend their time in those environments feasting exclusively on soft-bodied invertebrates like slugs, earthworms, and caterpillars. Because of that preference for dark places and some of their prey like nightcrawlers coming out after the sun sets, brown snakes are quite often active at night, whereas most snakes, being the cold-blooded creatures that they are, prefer the daytime and the heat generated by a brilliant sunny day. This comfort in colder temps also contributes to their desire to venture about in the winter.

With a diet lacking in the fatty goodness of mammals brown snakes don’t get very large. They are 6 to 13 inches long and skinny, with most specimens I’ve seen coming in around 10 inches.

These snakes are, like their name implies, brown in color. Their primary coloring is a light brown or tan, and they have two tell-tale rows of dark brown spots along their back.   

Some people confuse them with the larger and dangerous copperhead snake and want to kill them. Don’t kill them, even if – and especially if -- it is a copperhead. All snakes are precious. Plus, there are no copperheads to confuse them with – in New York State copperheads can be found only in the Catskills.

Despite that, and despite their small size and lack of venom, browns still scare some people. Especially city people. This snake might be the most widespread in New York because it’s not just a snake of the wilds – it’s a city snake, too. Brown snakes are rather abundant in suburbs and big cities, living not only in lawns and parks, but also under buildings, in trash and debris, and around dumpsters. Their desire to hide under almost anything and eat squishy animals makes them fit to live virtually anywhere.

Brown snakes are also special for the fact that they give birth to live young. 70 percent of the world’s snake species are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. The browns are viviparous and can live birth anywhere from 4 to as many as 40 baby snakes at a time. This is done by browns and some other local snakes, like garters, because in northern climates laying eggs isn’t the always the best option because the earth can’t consistently keep the eggs warm enough for growth (turtles succeed where northern egg-laying snakes fail because they can dig deep pits in which to bury their eggs).

The DeKay’s snake, like all snakes, is an interesting creature. Maybe you’ll get to see one this year. Maybe it will be in the winter or in the big city – brown snakes truly are snakes for all seasons and all places.

From the 11 January 2019 All WNY News