Hartford Courant – YOUR VIEW: Cindy Slane

1/26/2010

The recent dispute over a routine transfer of funds has thrown new light on the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, a 36-year-old, public-policy agency working on the full spectrum of women’s issues.

Some have argued that because Connecticut families are suffering and legislative commissions do not provide essential services, it is time to close the commission’s doors. In fact, the suffering of state families is exactly why those doors must stay open.

Critics can not credibly contend that the commission does not provide essential services when, in Connecticut, women on average still earn less than 75 percent of what men earn for comparable work and are only half as likely to have private pensions as men, and the private pensions they do have provide only half as much in benefits. Additionally, there are women across all socioeconomic groups living in fear of abuse from their spouses and intimate partners; and women — particularly women of color — are still significantly less likely than males to receive appropriate treatment for symptoms of a heart attack in an emergency room. Working to address issues such as these seems essential to me.

The commission works purposefully, without fanfare, to bring state government to the people and the people’s concerns to government — often in ways of which the public, and the media, may be unaware.

A federal lawsuit against the state Department of Correction, filed by correction officers and other department staff members, which alleged serious misconduct by co-workers and supervisors, is a perfect example. The lawsuit settled recently. But a 2003 court-ordered, stipulated agreement resolving some of the plaintiffs’ claims named the commission to monitor the performance of the department in changing the then-pervasive culture of sexual harassment in our prisons. The commission retained retired Superior Court Judge Beverly Hodgson as monitor, and for years she worked with Commissioner Theresa Lanz and others to overhaul the department’s antidiscrimination policies and practices.

The commission provides state-mandated, sexual-harassment-awareness-and-prevention training to many state employees — work that helps the state avoid similar sexual harassment lawsuits that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Government, at its best, represents all the people. But how can the people monitor hundreds of bills introduced in each legislative session, or travel to the Capitol, again and again, to testify on them? The people can’t, but the commission does, monitoring 200 bills yearly and spearheading legislative initiatives to address important concerns of women and girls (and, by extension, the men and boys who depend upon and care about them). Such measures included: legislation to require insurers to cover hospital stays of at least 48 hours after mastectomy and normal childbirth; legislation requiring insurers that provide prescription coverage to cover prescription contraceptives and that provide coverage for cancer treatment to cover wigs; legislation requiring private employers to permit workers to use accumulated sick time for family-and-medical-leave purposes; and legislation providing for a significantly enhanced penalty for any knowing assault on a pregnant woman that causes the termination of her pregnancy.

Commission staff members field calls daily from women seeking help on such issues as domestic violence, divorce rights and job training. The agency is a clearinghouse, connecting women with the services they need. The agency also serves as a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities referral source for workplace and other discrimination complaints.

The commission also was instrumental in blocking state approval for a hospital joint venture that would have denied women access to a full range of reproductive health care services.

The issue is not whether the commission earns its keep or deserves continued funding. The real issue is why, when families are struggling to regain their economic footing, to preserve their health and to ensure their safety, anyone would even consider advocating such a penny-wise and pound-foolish decision. Shutting down the state’s leading force for women’s equality when there still is so much essential work to be done makes no sense.

•Cindy Slane of Easton is a lawyer and a commissioner on Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.

Original Article