WRITER: Sarah Prohaska
DATE: February 7, 2007
PORT ST. LUCIE — A local mom hopes her efforts to persuade state lawmakers to clarify what constitutes emotional child abuse will result in a bill for the state legislature to vote on this year - but she faces a looming deadline to find a sponsor in the state Senate.
Port St. Lucie resident Jodi Walsh has been on a mission for more than a year to raise awareness about what she says are deficiencies in state law about what defines mental injury and emotional abuse, as opposed to physical abuse. In the past months, she's racked up more than 9,000 minutes on her cellphone, driven back and forth to Tallahassee several times and formed a nonprofit organization called Childs Cry For Help.
She's garnered the support of state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who is working on a draft bill and wants to file it this week. But Walsh said Tuesday the draft bill needs a sponsor in the state Senate by Friday to keep the issue alive this legislative session.
"We've had some problems securing a Senate sponsor, but I have a lot of hope," she said. "I'm not giving up."
Walsh began pushing the issue after her ex-boyfriend, Edward Munao, was convicted in 2005 of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery in connection to statements he made to their then-6-year-old son. While Munao never physically harmed the boy, prosecutors argued he mentally harmed him through manipulation and encouraging the boy to be aggressive toward Walsh. The manipulation culminated, they alleged, when Munao told the boy to get a knife and stab his mother. The boy didn't act on those instructions.
However, Munao's child abuse conviction was overturned by the 4th District Court of Appeal last year because the judges ruled state law prohibits a child abuse charge based only on statements made to a child. The state attorney general's office has attempted to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which has not ruled whether it will hear the appeal.
After Munao's conviction was overturned, Harrell and Walsh put together a task force of legal and social service officials to find language to better define mental injury and clarify the state law addressing emotional abuse. The draft language that Harrell has been working on proposes new definitions for "maliciousness" and "mental injury." It also adds a proposed clause to the law saying speech protected by the First Amendment does not violate the child abuse law.
Walsh acknowledges the issue raises controversial questions about parental rights and that her efforts have garnered national publicity - which she says were some of the reasons she was given by senators who have refused to sponsor the bill.
She plans to crank up her lobbying efforts during the next three days. "Although children do not vote, this issue needs to be a priority for the state," she said.
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