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Wisconsin Governor Cabinet

Dawn Crim, Gov. Tony Evers' pick to lead the Department of Safety and Professional Services, defends herself amid questions about a 2005 child abuse charge on Wednesday, saying during a state Senate confirmation hearing that jabbing her 5-year-old son's hand with a pen was a "horrendous mistake" that has not been repeated. 

Republican lawmakers are split on whether to endorse Gov. Tony Evers’ pick to lead the Department of Safety and Professional Services after questioning her Wednesday about a 2005 child abuse case that was later dismissed.

Dawn Crim told a Senate committee tasked with reviewing her appointment that she has taken responsibility for an incident 14 years ago where she jabbed her young son’s hand with a pen, causing it to bleed.

“Fourteen years ago, I made a horrendous mistake that hurt my son,” Crim said. “It was the worst experience of my life. I’ve taken responsibility for my actions and I vowed that it would never happen again, and it hasn’t.”

The case against Crim resulted in deferred prosecution and the record being removed from the state’s online circuit court record system. Deferred prosecutions typically occur when a defendant admits wrongdoing in a case. The charges against Crim were never proven in court.

Crim’s deferred prosecution agreement, which she successful completed, required her to complete a parenting class, complete a psychological evaluation and not use physical or corporal punishment in the disciplining of her children, among other things.

Crim’s testimony was enough to persuade committee member Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, to vote for Crim’s nomination if it comes to the Senate floor, where Republicans control the chamber 19-14.

“I think she’s qualified and I don’t think one error from the past is disqualifying,” he said in an interview.

But the other Republicans on the committee indicated they’d need more time to mull Crim’s confirmation.

The committee chairman, Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, told reporters he’s not ready to call a committee vote on whether to recommend Crim to the full Senate, which has the ultimate power to reject her confirmation. He previously described the 2005 incident as “deeply troubling,” but said Wednesday he was more concerned that Evers didn’t disclose the incident right away.

Kapenga said he’s also concerned whether Crim has the necessary regulatory experience to run the department, which oversees professional licensing and ensures safe and sanitary conditions at public and private buildings.

“We have to make sure we’re really comfortable with this person running an agency,” Kapenga said.

Crim during the hearing touted her experience as a UW-Madison women’s basketball coach; at the UW chancellor’s office, where she helped to ensure garments with the UW logo were made in acceptable conditions; and at the Department of Public Instruction, where she oversaw a division of 95 employees and a $30 million budget.

“I have a deep understanding of the process and the leadership to work with our staff ensuring that they are following the processes,” Crim said.

Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, another committee member, hasn’t said whether he’d vote for Crim, but said a more careful review of records is necessary prior to doing so.

“The eleventh-hour document dump from Governor Evers relating to one of his cabinet nominees was very troubling,” Craig said. “I expected a better, more transparent process from Governor Evers.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, continued Wednesday to cast doubt on Crim’s appointment.

“We’ll continue to discuss this nomination as a caucus, but I still have concerns that the governor knew about this child abuse charge and failed to notify the Senate when he submitted this nominee,” he said.

An Evers spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment. Evers praised Crim when the Wisconsin State Journal first reported on the 2005 charge last week.

Crim previously served under Evers as assistant state superintendent for the Division of Student and School Success.

Senators at the hearing Wednesday said the governor’s office had provided them with a packet of court documents and other information providing context around the child abuse charge as well as a letter Crim wrote to Department of Safety and Professional Services staff last week.

“I love my children,” Crim wrote to staff. “They are the most important part of my life. My son and I have always had a strong, loving relationship.”

Case background

Also included in the packet was a letter from the Dane County Department of Human Services, which in December 2005 separately overturned Child Protective Services’ child abuse finding because there was not enough evidence to substantiate it.

The materials additionally included an initial assessment by Dane County Health and Human Services’ workers calling Crim and her husband “a good basis of stability for their children” and “parents who have consciously set out to do their best in raising their children.”

The report includes an account from Crim around the time of the incident, who told a caseworker she feared for her son, whose hand she had poked several times after learning he had poked a fellow student’s hand with a pencil.

“Being an African-American parent, she fears that if her child (especially son) begins to be seen as at all aggressive, it could quickly lead to the white, criminal justice system putting him away in jail/prison,” the report states.

It also provides more nuance around the incident. It says Crim poked her son’s palm while asking him, “Did you do it like this?” The report says when she saw her son’s hand was bleeding, she felt “terrible” and put ointment and Band-Aids on his palm.

‘Exemplary person’

During Wednesday’s hearing, several community members who know Crim well spoke to her character.

Norman Davis, director of the city of Madison’s Department of Civil Rights, told the committee Crim is an “exemplary person.”

Meanwhile, Derrick Smith, who met Crim through the Madison Network of Black Professionals, also praised her.

“Dawn Crim has demonstrated throughout her career she is more than capable of being a leader in this state,” he said.

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Capitol reporter

Riley Vetterkind covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal. He can be reached at (608) 252-6135 or rvetterkind@madison.com.