February 25, 2005

Senate wants to review child abuse laws

February 25, 2005 [Silver City Sun-News]
By Walter Rubel

SANTA FE, New Mexico — After passing a bill earlier in the session calling for mandatory life sentences for the crime of child abuse resulting in death, the Senate passed a memorial Friday directing that a study be done of all the state’s child abuse laws.

Senate Minority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, sponsored both the mandatory sentencing bill and the memorial that passed Friday. She said the memorial directs the Legislative Council to appoint a committee of experts to report back to the Legislature on the state’s laws dealing with child abuse.

“We would get the professional opinion of prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and victims advocates,” she said.

During debate on the life-sentence bill passed earlier in the session, there was considerable discussion of the state’s laws dealing with negligence. Several senators expressed concern that those who were simply negligent in not preventing abuse were being treated the same as the actual abusers.
Garcia said those definitions and laws would be reviewed in the study.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, who argued against passage of the earlier bill mandating life sentences, said he supported the memorial.
“I think it gives this Legislature a chance to look at these laws and make them more in conformity with other laws in the state of New Mexico,” Sanchez said.
“I know that was part of the discussion that we had the other day when the bill went through, and I think it’s real important for us to look at these issues.”
Sen. Mark Boitano, R-Albuquerque, said that along with looking at laws and sentencing guidelines, the study should also examine ways to prevent child abuse.
“I think it’s important for the state to be aware that child abuse and domestic violence occurs in certain types of relationships,” he said. “Long-term married relationships have less incidence of domestic violence and less incidence of child abuse, where short-term noncommitted relationships, a lot of times cohabitating relationships, have higher incidence of domestic violence and higher incidence of child abuse.”
The memorial passed unanimously 27-0, and will now move to the House for consideration.

Walter Rubel can be reached at wrubel@lcsun-news.com

Posted by Nancy at 03:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005

Senate votes to increase child abuse penalties

February 18, 2005 [Associated Press]

SANTA FE -- The Senate wants to increase the criminal penalty for child abusers who kill their victims.

The Senate voted to increase the punishment for intentionally abusing a child, resulting in the child's death.

The punishment would be life in prison -- which in New Mexico means 30 years.

Current law doesn't distinguish between abuse that results in great bodily harm and abuse that results in death.

The current penalty is 18 years in prison.

The measure passed on a vote of 30-to-8.

It now goes to the House.

Posted by Nancy at 11:28 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2005

Ex-Congressman Sex Offender Told to Move Out of House

February 7, 2005 [Associated Press]

CHICAGO -- A former congressman who resigned after being convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker has been ordered to leave his Chicago home because it is near an elementary school.

Police gave Mel Reynolds 30 days to move out of the house because of a state law that prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 500 feet of a dense concentration of children, police department spokesman Dave Bayless said.

Reynolds, 53, has lived at the home on the city's South Side since 2001, according to public records.

Authorities discovered that Reynolds was living near the Salem Christian Academy when he checked in with police as part of a mandatory annual visit. New computer software identified the problem last month after comparing his address to nearby schools, day-care centers and playgrounds, Bayless said.

Telephone directories did not list a number for Reynolds, and he could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The Chicago Democrat resigned in 1995 after being convicted of sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign worker. In 1997, he was convicted of fraudulently obtaining bank loans and diverting money intended for voter-registration drives into his campaign fund. He was sentenced to five years in prison in that case.

Reynolds served a total of 2 1/2 years in prison before President Clinton commuted his prison term in 2001.

Reynolds made a bid for the congressional seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in 2004 but lost in the primary.

Posted by Nancy at 04:40 AM | Comments (0)

Courts 'add to child abuse ordeal'

February 7, 2005 [The Guardian} United Kingdom
By Clare Dyer, legal correspondent

Child victims of sex abuse are traumatised all over again by the court system, according to a study of child witnesses published today.

Children giving evidence in court are routinely accused of lying and suffer distress, including breaking down in tears, while those enduring the long wait for their cases to come to court resort to self-harm, suicide attempts, bedwetting and truancy.

The NSPCC, which commissioned the research with Victim Support, is launching a campaign today to raise £3.2m to help child witnesses through the trauma of giving evidence.

The television personality Noel Edmonds, chairman of the Caring for Children in Court Appeal, said: "It cannot be right in a modern society that children who have suffered so much are treated in this way. We are failing our children if courts don't make the best possible attempts to hear their evidence."

Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson interviewed 50 children and young people between seven and 17 who gave evidence in court, 32 in sex offence cases. The children felt intimidated in court and some said appearing as a witness had been as traumatic as the original abuse.

Half did not understand the words or phrases being used in court, just under half said they had been accused of lying, and more than half said they had been very upset, distressed or angry. A fifth of those said they had cried, felt sick or sweated.

One child said: "The defence wasn't nice. He was horrible. He said I was a liar. No one warned me beforehand that he'd say that. I don't feel I got to say everything I wanted to."

The parent of a 14-year-old witness told the researchers the case was not about getting to the truth but about skills, money and technique.

Mr Edmonds said: "This new research is as explosive as it is depressing. Children said they were shouted at, accused of lying, and were confused and upset by the long words used by lawyers, often when they were the victims of serious crimes."

The NSPCC also said children were having to wait unacceptably long periods of time before the cases reached court - on average almost a year - despite longstanding government policy to give priority to child abuse cases.

The charity is calling for more pre-trial support, lawyers and judges to ensure that children understand what they are being asked, an end to aggressive questioning, and monitoring of delays.

The NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: "Suffering child abuse and then having to speak publicly about the experience is an ordeal for a young witness. The NSPCC believes all children must receive pre-trial support to reduce their trauma and help them give the best possible evidence."

The charity is fundraising to ensure its young witness services, which help children and their families with giving evidence, can continue.

Posted by Nancy at 12:09 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2005

Open child abuse hearings go well

January 30, 2005 [Associated Press] By Katharine Webster

CONCORD, NH — A small ray of sunshine is creeping into one of the most secretive parts of the state court system: child abuse and neglect hearings.

Usually only the most horrific cases become public, when criminal charges are filed against an adult, because criminal cases are open under constitutional guarantees of a fair trial.

Those cases represent the tip of the iceberg. The majority of abuse and neglect cases are civil and so secretive that only the accused, the prosecutor and witnesses can attend — not foster parents, not grandparents.

Now, under a pilot project, family courts in Grafton and Rockingham counties let anyone attend child abuse and neglect hearings, although judges still may close all or part of them if there is a good reason. Also, those who attend are warned it is illegal to disclose information that could identify a child or parent.

Still, the pilot project could shed light on how well judges, police, court-appointed guardians, social workers and the state Division for Children, Youth and Families do their jobs and whether elected officials are providing enough money for child protection and services for families, advocates say.

"It puts some sunlight on the process and, as we all know, sunlight is the best disinfectant," said former state Sen. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, a lawyer who handles family law cases.

"People are forbidden by law from commenting on the hearings and could be prosecuted if they criticize DCYF," Gordon said. "That's wrong."

Gordon introduced a bill in 2002 to open abuse and neglect cases and related hearings, such as those to terminate someone's parental rights. Instead, the Legislature set up the pilot project in Grafton County, then expanded it to Rockingham County last July.

The move follows a national trend toward greater openness in such cases, reversing a nationwide move decades earlier to close nearly all cases centered on children: juvenile delinquency cases, abuse and neglect hearings, and even divorce and child custody disputes in some states.

According to a July 2003 survey by the national Conference of Chief Justices, one state — Oregon — now requires that all abuse and neglect hearings be open; 13 states presume they are open but give judges the discretion to close them; and nine states presume they are closed but allow judges to open them.

Six states close them to the general public, but allow people with an interest in a particular case to attend, and 19 states (including New Hampshire) and the District of Columbia mandate complete closure. Ohio has no presumption of either openness or closure and Nevada is conducting a pilot project similar to New Hampshire's.

Steve Varnum is the public policy director of the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire. He supports more openness to educate the public about the division's work. At the same time, he thinks children's and parents' identities should be scrupulously protected.

"DCYF is not about yanking kids out of homes and putting them in foster care," said Varnum, who covered the agency for years as a Concord Monitor reporter.

"That represents a very small percentage, and even in most of those cases kids are going to return home, so it's about more than protecting kids — it's about making families whole, and that's hard to do in an atmosphere where everyone in a small town knows the horrible abuses that have gone on in a family," he said.

Warren Lindsey, an attorney for the division who has handled cases in Grafton County, said he asks judges to close hearings when they involve allegations a child has been sexually assaulted, but otherwise has no problem with them being open. At the same time, protecting the identity of children is critical, he said.

"We want people to know what we do," Lindsey said. "It's always a difficult balancing act. ... When people come forward, it's extremely traumatic for them."

Judge Edwin Kelly, chief justice of the state's district courts, believes the pilot project "has come very close to the ideal" in striking that balance.

In the pilot project, judges are supposed to close testimony involving a child's medical and psychological history and close hearings entirely when the child is present, although that's rare, Kelly said. All written records in civil abuse and neglect cases remain sealed, as does the docket.

That leads to some contradictory results, Kelly acknowledged. In cases that lead to criminal charges, earlier civil actions remain sealed, making it difficult to learn about any abuse complaints involving the same victim or perpetrator and how authorities responded.

And while reporters can attend abuse and neglect hearings at random, they cannot get the schedule of future hearings or records in a particular case from the court, making it hard for them to be watchdogs for the public.

Kelly, who advocates more openness, hopes the Legislature will reconcile the contradictions.

"I would advocate for the widest open procedures that we could have without disclosing intimate psychological, medical and other details," Kelly said. "Any bureaucracy has to be and ought to be held accountable for how it conducts its business."

He said there were no problems during the pilot project's first two years in Grafton County.

State Rep. Carolyn Gargasz, chairwoman of the legislative committee overseeing the project, is most concerned with making sure people accused of abuse or neglect are allowed to have friends or family members in the courtroom.

Gargasz, R-Hollis, wants to assess the effect of openness on families before deciding whether to open hearings statewide.

Closed hearings sometimes become public when one party or side goes public. That was the case last summer in a Massachusetts courtroom when a New Hampshire boy, Patrick Holland, sought to terminate the parental rights of his father, who had murdered Patrick's mother. The only person free to speak with the media, because he was not a party to the case, was Patrick's guardian, Ron Lazisky, of Sandown, N.H.

When The Associated Press challenged the case's closure, the judge said he would like to open it so reporters could hear all sides, but state law required him to close it.

Posted by Nancy at 06:56 PM | Comments (0)