Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Child abuse bill concerns parents

Written by
Jonathan Starkey
The News Journal



DOVER — A bill to broaden Delaware’s child-abuse laws unanimously cleared a House committee Thursday – but not before parents loudly voiced concerns that the legislation could outlaw spanking. The Department of Justice, which is backing Senate Bill 234, says parental discipline still would be protected elsewhere in the code.

That assurance is not enough for some parents. “I think the Legislature’s intent with this bill is very clear,” said Tyler Hogan, a Dover-area father with two young daughters, and another on the way.

“The concern is that the language is vague. I don’t want my wife to feel like she has to close the blinds around the house before she administers discipline.”

The bill creates three tiers of child abuseunder Delaware law, carves out special protection for children with disabilities and broadens language over what qualifies as abuse.

In the most controversial passage, “physical injury” is defined as “any impairment of physical condition or pain.” That wording has some parents crying foul over inappropriate government intrusion into parental discipline.

Supporters of the bill say it’s necessary to tighten definitions of child abuse to catch cases that slip through the cracks. Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis, head of the Justice Department’s Family Division, said prosecutors often lose or don’t bring abuse cases because they can’t prove “substantial pain,” often a burden of proof under current law.

“We drafted this bill after so much trouble with regards to effective prosecution of children who have been physically and sexually abused,” Lewis said. “I hope this doesn’t become a cause célèbre for an organization that thinks the state is out to prevent their parenting.”

The bill was passed unanimously last week in the Senate, where it was shepherded by its prime sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere. Blevins suggested she might support an amendment to clarify the “pain” passage. “This bill was never about discipline or any of these issues,” Blevins said.

Lewis said the Justice Department would not likely support an amendment, calling it a “solution in search of a problem.”

With less than a full week left in the current General Assembly session, the legislation now heads to the full House for consideration.

Contact Jonathan Starkey at 324-2832,
on Twitter @jwstarkey or at jstarkey@delawareonline.com.