ANNAPOLIS – A new Maryland law may keep convicted child abusers in jail up to 10 years longer, but child advocates insist that to better protect children, failing to report possible abuse should be a crime.
“If you’re going to commit the most horrific offenses to children that you can think of then you’re going to pay the price,” said Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, Senate sponsor of the new law.
Child abusers may now be convicted of the crime in the first and second degree, with a maximum 25-year penalty for the greater, first-degree, offense, 10 years longer than under previous statutes. Sponsors of the law, which was effective Oct. 1, say it ensures harsher punishments in severe cases. A second-degree offense still carries a maximum term of 15 years.
“It mirrors the rest of the assault charges on the books,” since adult assault charges are treated in degrees, said Sue Hazlett, Baltimore County’s assistant state’s attorney.
First-degree child abuse includes starvation, brain injury or bleeding within the skull, and injuries that cause serious disfigurement or impairment or create a risk of death.
Hazlett said the law emerged because of increasing numbers of severe abuse cases.
For instance, “shaken-baby” cases, which can cause serious brain injuries to a child, have been increasing, she said. But from a criminal standpoint, the penalty for those cases would be the same as less severe cases.
“It’s so on a different end of the spectrum than a child who has marks on his buttocks from a belt. We’re talking about a child whose development has been arrested,” Hazlett said. “It seemed time to change the law to reflect what we were seeing.”
The law also raises the maximum penalty for sexual abuse of a minor from 15 years to 25 years.
Still, child advocates contend Maryland also needs penalties for failure to report suspected abuse.
But penalties for failing to report child abuse are either nonexistent or so lenient that offenders might not even be punished, said Jim McComb, of the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, which, along with the Coalition to Protect Maryland’s Children, supported the criminal law.
“We want reasonable penalties (for failure to report). . . we don’t want anyone exempt,” McComb said. “There are tens of thousands of kids victimized whose victimization is hidden . . . then the perpetrator is free to continue.”
Two bills sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, aimed at cracking down on reporting abuse, failed to win approval last spring.
One would have established failure to report as a misdemeanor with a possible $1,000 fine for those professionals – health practitioners, police officers, educators and human services workers – required to report suspected abuse and neglect.
“There’s no sanction in the law if they don’t do anything,” Kelley said. Professional organizations, like licensing boards for doctors, can discipline workers who fail to report, but no one has ever been sanctioned, she said.
If they don’t report, “it’s a big ‘So what?'” Hazlett said. She’d like to see criminal and civil penalties, maybe even including 30 or 60 days of jail time.
Maryland is one of four states that does not criminalize the failure to report suspected abuse or neglect, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect.
“It sort of says we don’t value children if there’s no penalty,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s other bill would have changed the provision that exempts members of the clergy from reporting. Her bill would require clergy to report suspicions if they were acquired while they were acting in the role of a mandatory reporter, such as a counselor or teacher, or heard of suspected abuse from a third party.
A controversial part of the bill would have required clergy who learned of any suspected child abuse in the confessional to report it, unless it was an admission from a perpetrator.
“I think the best interests of the child ought to come before the best interests of anybody else,” Kelley said.
She plans to reintroduce both bills again in January, minus the confessional provision.
Brochin plans to return in the spring with a proposal to have child abuse in the first degree considered a violent offense. – 30 – CNS-10-9-03