Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

August 29, 2013

Common sense

Phillips correct in clarifying law

— — Picture this potential scenario. A mother hard at work laboring over supper in the kitchen suffers a momentary lapse, and loses sight of her child. Then the child wanders out of the house and down the street. A concerned neighbor sees the child meandering about and calls Child Protective Services. As a result, the mother is charged with a felony offense.

This could actually happen under current state code in West Virginia. But does such a lapse in judgment by the mother in question really constitute a felony offense? Of course not.

That’s why we welcome the efforts of Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, who is attempting to clarify state code so that such a scenario will not become a reality.

 Phillips, who represents a small delegate district in Mercer County, wants the Legislature to amend the section of state code in question next year, based on testimony and evidence taken during interims work by a special panel she chairs, the Select Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.

It is important to note that the southern West Virginia lawmaker isn’t trying to be soft on crime. She is simply attempting to add a little common sense in sections of state code where it is needed. And under the changes she is seeking, the mother who temporarily lost sight of her child — leading to a neighbor calling Child Protective Services — could still be guilty of a lesser misdemeanor offense.

 “We’re not being soft on crime,” Phillips told the Register-Herald in Beckley last week. “We’re just trying to make sure that prosecutors have things within their battery that they can use to get these people’s attention.”

However, the only penalty available under current state code for the hypothetical scenario described above is a felony offense. And that makes little sense.

“If you could charge them with a misdemeanor, then it’s a wake-up call for that parent,” Phillips added. “CPS is now on alert and law enforcement is now on alert that they need to watch this family.”

In another area of concern, Phillips believes a second part of the code needs to be beefed up because the felony murder statute doesn’t provide the same penalty for child abuse resulting in death as it does for an adult.

“If you kill a child, there’s a different penalty if it results from abuse,” she said.

Phillips isn’t sure why the code makes that distinction but says this definitely needs to be upgraded so that stronger punishment is allocated out when child abuse or neglect causes a death.

The committee members also are looking at existing rules as they relates to when a child is called into a courtroom to testify, and whether someone in authority is on hand to assist the child. That person could be a state police officer, deputy sheriff or other official.

“That child needs someone that they can feel very safe with,” Phillips correctly adds.

The proposed changes being sought by Phillips, and members of the Select Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, make sense.

The committee members should proceed with the recommended changes to state code.

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