The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 8, 2014

New laws protect rights of children

By Wendy Holdren
Register-Herald Reporter

— Members of the West Virginia Legislature worked this year to help create laws to stop crimes against children, such as neglect, physical abuse and child pornography.

Executive Director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network Emily Chittenden-Laird said one out of every 10 children will be a sexual abuse victim by their 18th birthday, so enacting these laws was especially important.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed three of those bills into law: House Bills 4005, 4006 and 4139.

The first creates a criminal offense for child abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian which creates a substantial risk of bodily injury. This law also establishes misdemeanor penalties for a first and second offense and makes a third or subsequent offense a felony.

This law makes gross child neglect that creates a substantial risk of bodily injury a felony.

West Virginia Child Protective Services identified 4,591 victims of child abuse in the last reported year, according to Chittenden-Laird.

The second law enhances penalties for possessing, accessing with intent to view, transporting, receiving or distributing child pornography.

Depending on the number of photos or the length of the video, offenders can face up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

The third law restricts parental rights of children who were conceived as a result of a sexual assault or sexual abuse.

Both custody and visitation rights will be denied to a natural parent convicted of sexual assault when a child is produced as a result of the offense, unless the victim or guardian consents and it is in the best interest of the child.

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said Speaker of the House, Tim Miley, D-Harrison, formed a bipartisan Select Committee for Crimes Against Children during the interims.

“We called in State Police agencies and child advocacy networks because they’re such an important part of dealing with child abuse and neglect,” Guthrie said.

The State Police advised the committee that it’s part of their job to identify abuse and neglect cases, but often, they did not have the legal recourse to make sure parents were being held accountable.

Guthrie said committee members then worked to ensure the laws “have more teeth.”

Deadbeat parents are a huge problem in the state, like the rest of the country, Guthrie said, and protections for children need to be in place.

As for the child pornography law, Guthrie said previous offenders claimed they clicked the links by mistake. But the members argued if someone is found with 143 photographs or videos of child porn on their computer, that’s not a mistake.

“It gives the State Police more authority to say there was intent. Because of the intent, we expanded the penalties on folks who get caught, and gave them less of a legal loophole to fly through.”

Guthrie said State Code was actually silent on rules about children conceived by way of a rape.

“The thought was that most judges wouldn’t re-victimize someone, but we wanted the statute to be as clear as can be.”

She said she hopes the Legislature can secure more needed funding for child advocacy services next year, because those are the individuals who really know how to talk to kids.

Regardless, she and the other members of the subcommittee are thrilled with passage of the laws that protect children.

“It was a real team effort. It’s nice to see women come together in a bipartisan way for children.”

She added, “If you want the responsibility of a child, treat them with respect and dignity. Give them the love and care they deserve. Otherwise, we’re coming after you.”

Chittenden-Laird commended the committee on their work in the Legislature this year: “The field of child maltreatment is ever-evolving and it is important to keep our statutes up-to-date with current trends and research. The Select Committee on Crimes Against Children did an excellent job this year to consider current child welfare laws and update them with practice needs in the field.”

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