Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 25, 2013

Women’s Caucus seeks changes in child abuse penalties

MANNIX PORTERFIELD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

CHARLESTON —  — A mother toiling over pots and pans in the kitchen in preparation of supper has a momentary lapse and lets her 3-year-old child wander down the street.

In minutes, a neighbor spies the toddler meandering about and calls Child Protective Services.

Stretching existing state law to the limit, the parent could be charged with a felony.

This is one area of the code that Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, wants the Legislature to amend 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.

Granted, a woman might forget to keep tabs on a child while busying herself with household chores, Phillips says.

But soon, a distinct pattern is evident, and authorities find the mother passed out on a couch, lost in a drug-or-alcohol fugue, but this is hardly grounds for a felony offense, the delegate says.

Which is why the Women’s Caucus, which got permission from House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, to form the special committee, is eyeing an addition to the code so that such crimes are misdemeanors.

“We’re not being soft on crime,” Phillips explained.

“We’re just trying to make sure that prosecutors have things within their battery that they can use to get these people’s attention.”

A brief inattention to a child’s whereabouts is hardly a felony offense, the delegate says.

“But felony is the only thing mentioned in code,” she said.

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

In another area, Phillips said a second part of the code needs to 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 meted out when child abuse or neglect causes a death.

This year, the Legislature passed a human trafficking bill that needs to be tweaked by adding the word “or” so that it covers not only holding one for ransom, reward or concession, but also with the intent to inflict bodily injury or to commit an act of terrorism, the delegate said.

Phillips said the Women’s Caucus is eyeing a fourth dimension to its work, that of providing a child called into a courtroom to testify to have someone in authority on hand.

“They need that person on their side,” she said.

“It could be and may well be the State Police officer or deputy sheriff involved in their case,” she said.

“That child needs someone that they can feel very safe with.”

So far, the special committee has taken detailed statistics from State Police officials on the growing problem of sexual offenses against minors, including those committed with the aid of the Internet.

Coming up in September, the committee will be hearing either from the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, or some active prosecutors.

All of this is leading to some likely proposals when the Legislature convenes in regular session in January.

“This is a start,” Phillips said.

For her, the need to make some sweeping changes hit home this week when she read a newspaper account of two parents charged in McDowell County after leaving children with a baby-sitter who walked off the job. One toddler yanked off a diaper and the children wound up playing in excrement.

“This happens everywhere,” Phillips said.

“We’re very serious about this. Some things we can’t stop before it happens. But once it happens, we can take care of those parents that abuse them.”