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COLUMN: Sentence may not fit the crime in child abuse cases

By: RACHEL STOVALL
May 7, 2018 Updated: May 7, 2018 at 1:25 pm
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Have you ever thought about how we charge parents guilty of child abuse? Like most, I read the headlines and assume that those guilty of seriously abusing children go to jail.

I was dismayed to find out that in El Paso County some cases of documented child abuse are classified as misdemeanor. To put this in context, a misdemeanor is what you can be charged for driving with stolen license plates.

In cases of misdemeanor child abuse, probation is most often the sentence. This requires the offender to attend and complete parenting courses and an anger management class. Probation can be imposed for two years or more, but generally those guilty of misdemeanor child abuse do not go to jail.

Does this punishment fit the crime?

Here's an example. A local child appeared at school with a laceration on his head, which he explained was caused by a spanking with a belt buckle. The same day, detectives visited the home and found a child locked in his bedroom with no furniture and the windows boarded up. The child was crouched in a corner of the room.

A horrifying picture emerged through interviews of the parents, neighbors and others who knew the family. The kids were only allowed out of that room to eat once or twice a day. If they were "good" for a whole week, they were allowed one book to read.

The story gets worse. In this family, the children would have to knock on the door hoping for someone to answer to let them out to use the bathroom. Sometimes no one would come. In one of these times, one of the children urinated on the floor. He was punished by having his nose rubbed in the urine and then forced to sleep on it.

Much to the dismay of all watching, these abusive parents never spent a day in jail. The statute as written, required broken bones, and/or malnutrition for the charges to make the felony threshold that carries mandatory jail time. All these people received was probation.

This story was not an isolated incident. A similar case occurred in 2013 with the parents of an autistic child. Another similar case occurred in Falcon. Despite abuse that emotionally and physically damaged their young victims, there was no jail time for the abusers.

Janet Huffor, the chief of staff of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, saw a unique opportunity to advocate for children. Let's hear some of the story from her.

"After hearing all of these cases, I took action. I worked on possible bill language to address the shortfall in current state statute to provide law enforcement with a felony charge of child abuse for false imprisonment of a minor.

"The language needed to address the issue fit best in the false imprisonment statute to address those under the age of 18 that are being tied, or locked, or caged, for any long extended period of time."

Huffor is very passionate when talking about this issue.

She quotes Detective Patrick Gallagher when she wrote, "You cannot do that to an adult without receiving a felony charge, so you shouldn't be able to do that to a child! We cannot allow children to be imprisoned in their own room in a way that the state says we can't do to people who are serving life sentences for murder." I agree wholeheartedly. No longer can we have abused children slipping through cracks in well meaning but ineffective statutes. Child abuse must carry serious consequences for abusers.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Terri Carver. Last week, the bill was helped to pass by the testimony of several detectives, a deputy district attorney, and some others. I am delighted to share SB18-119 has been sent to the governor to be signed.

More of us can be involved in lawmaking. When we see something unfair, we need to contact our elected officials. We may not be able to write a statute, but we can express our ideas to lawmakers. And we should. Let's follow the example of this local wife and mother who made a difference.

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Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.

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