Sen. Champagne Testifies on Raised Bill that Tackles First-Responder PTSD Claims: Courant

February 26, 2020

Story by Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant

Kara DeWaine traveled to the state Capitol Tuesday to ask lawmakers to approve a bill that would extend workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder to include correction officers, noting her 42-year-old father committed suicide after working 13 years in a state prison in Montville.

Jeramie DeWaine had served at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center and saw the difficult conditions of daily life in a prison, she said.

“One year ago on this exact day — Feb. 25, 2019 — my father committed suicide,” DeWaine said as she stood with legislators and advocates. “His career entailed being locked behind prison walls for anywhere from eight to 16 hours at a time. My dad faced unfathomable hardships during his time in his position — both physical and mental. He was forced to live a double life in order to protect his family from the horrors that he fought firsthand at work.”

DeWaine’s widow, Becky, and his son, Michael, stood nearby during an emotional tribute as Kara DeWaine asked legislators to give correctional officers the same benefits that were secured last year for police officers and firefighters.

“We are here to support Senate Bill 231, so that my father’s name and legacy may live on,” she said. “His brothers and sisters in corrections should not have to suffer in silence any longer. … Let’s get this done.”

The bill also calls for providing workers’ compensation benefits for PTSD to ambulance employees and emergency dispatchers.

But two major lobbying groups at the Capitol — the 169-member Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the 115-member Council of Small Towns — are opposed to the bill for financial reasons.

Betsy Gara, the executive director of the small towns council, said municipalities still have not learned the long-term costs for extending post-traumatic stress benefits to police officers and firefighters, even though the law has been enacted. In addition, the costs have not been estimated for extending the benefits for extra categories of workers.

“We need to take a step back,” Gara said Tuesday.

CCM was heavily involved in detailed negotiations for the first bill last year but has not been involved in the latest version that was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday by the Democratic-controlled labor committee.

“The creation of this new law was the result of extensive discussions between the various stakeholders over a period of nine months,” CCM said in a statement. “The considerations were absent political ideology and focused on the greater good of our first responders, along with the property taxpayers of Connecticut.

“Each party involved in the development of the legislation dealt in good faith and was willing to compromise in order to create a meaningful and realistic legislation. Unfortunately, SB 231 is contrary to that process and would walk back the bipartisan agreement reached between all parties” last year.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who met with leaders of COST and CCM on Tuesday on an unrelated issue, had a different view.

“I think I’m sympathetic,” he told reporters outside his Capitol office. “I’ve got to get into the details and talk to folks. But, look, I know how key mental health has been. I know what that means in terms of families, and I think probably something like this should be covered.”

To qualify for benefits, an individual must be diagnosed with PTSD and must have experienced at least one of the six following qualifying events while on the job:

  • Viewing a deceased minor.
  • Witnessing the death of a person.
  • Witnessing an injury that causes the death of a person shortly thereafter.
  • Treating an injured person who dies shortly thereafter.
  • Carrying an injured person who dies shortly thereafter.
  • And witnessing an incident that causes a person to lose a body part, to suffer a loss of body function, or that results in permanent disfigurement.

The battle over the bill last year led to emotional debates on the floor of the state House of Representatives and Senate as some legislators talked about the traumatic events that they witnessed during their prior careers as police officers.

State Sen. Dan Champagne, a Vernon Republican who spent 22 years as a police officer, recalled his slide into desolation after responding to a series of tragic deaths on a single day. They included a young girl who was accidentally run over by her father and an infant who was smothered when his mother fell asleep in the bed they were sharing.

“I started not sleeping at night,” Champagne recalled on the Senate floor. “I was moody … I went from being normal, nothing going on … Six to eight weeks later, I was a disaster.”

Champagne said he eventually sought help to deal with the lingering trauma.