House Judiciary OKs one child abuse bill, tables another

Sam HautGovernment, Headlines


Child abuse bills heard in House Judiciary Committee.
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The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday discussed in detail two bills that look to change how Delaware handles child abuse cases.

One was passed; the other tabled.

Senate Bill 124, sponsored by Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, D-Arden, would clarify that people have to orally report cases of child abuse, neglect or trafficking to the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.

If a case of suspected abuse, neglect or trafficking doesn’t fit certain criteria, people can submit it orally or through the department’s online portal.

Those criteria include sexual abuse, child death, a child with a current physical injury, a child needing medical attention or a mental health evaluation, or a child who is living in hazardous conditions.

The bill also will not allow people who are licensed under the Delaware Division of Professional Regulation and the Department of Education to remain anonymous when they are making reports of child abuse or neglect.

Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, asked Trenee Parker, the director of the Division of Family Services, if anyone has access to the name of the person who reports a case of child abuse.

Parker said that information would be confidentially stored in their database.

Lynn asked how the bill applies to the confrontation clause in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution, which states that during criminal trials, the accused has the right to see the witnesses involved.

Tania Culley, a child advocate with the state of Delaware, said that if a case where someone anonymously reported abuse went to trial, the defense attorney would be able to confront that witness, but not the people accused.

“That’s already the current law. This bill isn’t changing that,” said Rep. Krista Griffith, D-Fairfax.  “That initial call is making that initial investigation and protecting those reporters who are people like Rep. Romer, who may call in something that she witnessed and want to be protected from retribution.”

Lynn said parents should have some rights in these cases.

“I think that it’s a consensus that no one wants children abused or neglected,” Lynn said. “But other people have rights in these cases as well. The parents have the rights. The right to be a parent is a constitutional right.”

Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Townsend/Hartly, said there could be an issue of some people being overzealous in their reporting.

“If you have an overzealous neighbor who also has an ax to grind, and they’re calling the hotline saying … ‘I saw Rep. Spiegelman out for a run again. His kid must be unsupervised (and)…I got home to members of your team at my home, I’d be pretty ticked,” he said.

The bill isn’t meant to stop anyone from reporting, Parker said.

“This is not designed to dissuade anyone from help,” Parker said. “That’s absolutely not the intent.” 

Spiegelman said he still thinks there are situations that could stop people from reporting if they cannot report anonymously.

“You’re putting me in a very awkward position where you’re potentially putting my safety against the law,” he said.

Frequent General Assembly public commenter Robert Overmiller said he also had concerns about the fear of reprisal.

“The reality is that there are some people who will not report if they’re afraid they’re going to be identified…that is a concern of mine,” Overmiller said. “And I fully agree with Rep. Lynn. You need to know who’s reported, because you hurt a lot of other people when it’s not a legit report.”

Eric Hastings, chief policy advisor for the Department of Services for Children, Youth & Their Families, said they support the bill.

While the bill failed to get enough votes in the committee, it received enough signatures afterward and was voted out of committee with five on its merits and one unfavorable.

The bill, which doesn’t require a fiscal note, has 14 additional sponsors and cosponsors, all Democrats except for Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown.

House Bill 217, sponsored by Lynn, would require the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, to inform someone suspected of abuse about their rights on first contact.

Those things include their right to legal counsel, to refuse investigators to enter the home or interview the child without a counsel present, to refuse a drug test, to refuse an examination of the child, and to know what the charges against the accused are. 

Spiegleman asked Lynn what happens if some people who are given notification use that opportunity to hide evidence.

Lynn said in response that he doesn’t think the bill would allow that.

“I don’t think that’s what it says,” Lynn said. “I think it says upon first contact with the person under investigation. That would be when the investigator goes and has a dialogue with the person who’s under investigation. All of the preliminary investigative work could happen before that first contact, just like it does with a law enforcement investigation.”

Griffith said she opposed the legislation because of the impact it would have on children involved in abuse cases.

“This is applying criminal prosecution provisions onto a civil matter, so I have issues with that,” Griffith said. “But I also have real deep concerns about the number of children who, coming down the line in investigations, would not be able to be removed from extremely dangerous situations were this legislation to be enacted.”

Lynn said it’s important to let parents know what their rights are, so those rights aren’t violated.

“The parents’ attorneys historically don’t get involved until they’re appointed by the court because there’s a case there,” Lynn said. “At that point, parent’s rights could have been violated dozens and dozens and dozens of times over…This is that delicate balance, protecting children, which is a noble goal, and it’s easy to bandy about statements like ‘kids will get hurt by this,’ or things like that, but it’s simply just not true.”

Parker said the concern they have is that the first contact in a child abuse case would be with the parent and not the child.

“The concern that we have from how this is drafted is that it appears that the first contact that we need to make, written and orally, is with the parent and not with the child who has been alleged to be a victim,” Parker said. “That would create a barrier towards implementing our mandate, which is ensuring the safety of children.”

Lynn said this bill is similar to adding Miranda Rights, which police read to those arrested.

“This does not create any new rights for parents,” Lynn said. “All that it does is tell them, here’s what your rights are under the law. What’s wrong with that? And candidly, you have to view with skepticism any entity that doesn’t want someone who’s under investigation to know what their rights are.”

Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle/Minquadale, said he disagrees with Lynn’s comparison to Miranda Rights.

“I was a cop for 30 years. Every time I did an investigation, the first words out of my mouth is Miranda,” Cooke said. “I don’t care who they are, it’s Miranda. I don’t know any cop who says they don’t. I don’t know one.”

Jennifer Donahue, an investigation coordinator with the Office of the Investigation Coordinator, said that children will die because of the bill.

“I have never read a piece of legislation like this that I feel is more damaging to what our child welfare system is doing right now than this piece of legislation,” she said. “We are now going to put restrictions on our CPS workers, on our DFS workers, as to how they can go about to step into that situation. To put a Miranda-like requirement on our civil side is detrimental. Children will be injured, children will die.”

Mike Ripple of the Delaware State Police said they opposed the bill because it’s unclear what impact the warning would have for them.

“Because depending on if those warnings were given and what those warnings are, what application would it have on us during our criminal investigation,” he said.

The bill was tabled 6 to 2.

It didn’t require a fiscal note and only had one additional sponsor, Sen. Kyra Hoffner, D-Smryna.

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