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Harrell backs mom's push on child abuse law

WRITER: Sarah Prohaska
DATE: Friday, October 13, 2006
Palm Beach Post

PORT ST. LUCIE — A Treasure Coast mom's fight to clarify and strengthen Florida's child abuse laws regarding emotional abuse could reach the state legislature after a local lawmaker on Thursday pledged to take the issue to Tallahassee.

Port St. Lucie resident Jodi Walsh has been working for months to raise awareness about deficiencies in the state's law on what constitutes emotional, rather than physical, abuse. State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, announced Thursday she's working with Walsh and has formed a task force that will begin meeting next week to draft proposed legislation.

"I've been doing research on this for a year and a half now," said Walsh, who formed a nonprofit group called Childs Cry for Help. "In Florida, our laws on emotional abuse fall into a vague, broad area."

Walsh's efforts began after her ex-boyfriend was convicted last year of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery in connection to statements he made to their 6 year-old-son.

While Edward Munao never physically injured the boy, prosecutors argued he mentally harmed the child by manipulating the boy to be aggressive toward Walsh, from whom Munao was estranged. The manipulation culminated, they alleged, when Munao told the boy to go into the kitchen, get a knife and stab her.

However, last month the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned Munao's child abuse conviction, saying Florida law does not allow an abuse charge based only on statements made to child. The appellate judges said Florida courts have held that child abuse must include a physical act, and cannot be based solely on speech.

Harrell said she decided to get involved to make sure "people who mentally injure a child are not absolved of the crime because of a poorly written statute." But she acknowledged the task force will have to be careful to balance the interests of protecting children with citizens' constitutional right to free speech and parenting concerns.

"We'll discuss how to craft this so that a normal conversation with a child - correcting a child - cannot be misinterpreted," Harrell said. "It is possible to go too far with this and wind up being overly broad and impacting normal parenting. That's what we don't want to do."

Harrell, who is up for reelection Nov. 7, said she will make this a priority if she wins. She hopes to have a bill ready to sponsor for the next legislative session. The task force will meet for the first time on Monday at 4 p.m. at city hall and will include representatives from the Department of Children and Families, local agencies that deal with child abuse, law enforcement agencies and the state attorney's office.

Treasure Coast State Attorney Bruce Colton said he agreed to give his input about how the statute should be clarified on mental abuse. He also said the state attorney general's office plans to ask the 4th District Court of Appeal for another hearing on its decision to overturn Munao's child abuse conviction.

He said those attorneys will argue that since the 4th District issued its ruling in the Munao case, the 1st District Court of Appeal issued an opposite ruling in a Leon County child abuse case. The appellate judges in the 1st District said they disagreed that "speech can never constitute the basis for a child abuse prosecution." Those judges acknowledged that conflicts with the 4th District's ruling, and the issue could end up in front of the state Supreme Court.

"We still have hope our case could conceivably end up in a conviction," Colton said. Munao, meanwhile, had maintained his innocence and has said he did not intend for the boy to hurt his mother.

Harrell said she still plans to sponsor a bill to clarify the law even if the Supreme Court gets involved.

"If it does wind up before the Supreme Court, that will give us some direction," Harrell said. "It will not change the need for this."


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