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Emotional Maltreatment Statutes Summary

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My Son, age 9

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BYLINE:    SARAH PROHASKA, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: Saturday, September 02, 2006
Palm Beach Post, The (FL)

An appellate court Friday threw out a child-abuse conviction against a former Stuart man accused of telling his 6-year-old son to "get a knife" and kill his mother, saying Florida law does not allow an abuse charge based only on statements made to a child.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with Miami attorney Roy Black, who argued that Florida courts have held that child abuse must involve some sort of physical act and cannot be based only on speech.

Black represents Edward Munao, the father of a now 9-year-old Port St. Lucie boy. A jury convicted Munao last year of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery.

Prosecutors argued that Munao emotionally abused his son and manipulated the boy for months to be aggressive and violent toward his ex-girlfriend, the boy's mother. The mother, Jodi Walsh, testified that Munao eventually told the boy to go into the kitchen, get a knife and kill her.

Munao was never accused of physically harming the boy; the charge was based on "mental injury."

In the appeal, Black relied on court rulings in a previous case in which attorneys argued that the term "mental injury" under the state's child-abuse laws was illegally broad. In that case, the courts ruled that the child-abuse law regarding mental injury is legal as long as it is "narrowly construed" so that it does not apply to speech, Black argued.

He also argued that Munao was being punished for making protected First Amendment speech. "

Munao argues that his child-abuse conviction must be vacated because oral statements alone cannot support a conviction for child abuse. We agree," the appellate judges wrote in the ruling made public Friday.

The judges, however, upheld Munao's conviction for solicitation to commit aggravated battery. Munao was sentenced last year to five years on each conviction, to be served consecutively.

On Friday, Black called the ruling "an important decision" regarding the child-abuse law.

"Under the law, child abuse cannot be committed by speech alone," he said. "There has to be some physical act with the speech."

Walsh, the boy's mother, said she was disappointed by the decision but was expecting it. After Munao's trial, Walsh formed a nonprofit organization and set up a Web site, www.childscryforhelp.com, in an effort to increase awareness about emotional abuse.

She's working with an attorney to draft proposed legislation to clarify and strengthen the child-abuse law involving abuse that injures a child mentally and emotionally.

She believes her son has post-traumatic stress disorder because of his father's manipulation.

"I knew this would likely happen," Walsh said of Friday's ruling. "The laws in this state do not recognize this type of emotional abuse."

The judges wrote that the child-abuse law "cannot be applied to speech of any kind."

"We acknowledge that Munao's statements, encouraging his 6-year-old son to get a knife and stab his mother, are deeply troublesome and offensive. However, it is not this court's role to rewrite the statue," the ruling states.

"The problematic circumstances in this case invite the legislature to reconstruct the statutory language in a way that balances the strong interest in protecting children with the fundamental preservation of individual constitutional freedoms."


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