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Bill clarifying child abuse starts trek through state legislature

WRITER: Michael Peltier
DATE: March 22, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — Most children are told early on words can hurt, but lawmakers in Tallahassee now are being asked to determine if words can hurt a child enough to send an adult to jail.

On Wednesday, a House committee approved a measure to make it clear — and a third degree felony — to verbally abuse a child to the point that it causes such mental anguish they lose their ability to function.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, is an attempt to resolve a discrepancy between two appellate courts on whether verbal abuse alone can inflict enough pain and suffering on children to send the speaker to prison for up to five years and a $5,000 fine.

Jodi Walsh knows the pain such abuse can cause.

The Port St. Lucie woman has accused her child's father, Edward Munao, of mentally abusing the boy by telling him to kick, punch and bite her. During one telephone call to her home, Muano told the boy to go into the kitchen, get a knife and stab her — an incident that led to his arrest.

He was convicted in 2005 of aggravated battery and child abuse, but the case was partially overturned by the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, which ruled that the First Amendment's freedom of speech protections prevented state officials from convicting Munao on child abuse charges for his speech. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Walsh says her son now is afflicted with post traumatic stress syndrome and other emotional scars.

"I am his mother, and there is nothing that I can say to my child at this particular time that will take away his pain," Walsh told committee members. "He has nightmares at night, and he worries during the day about his father getting out of jail and killing him or possibly killing me."

Shortly after the Munao case, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee disagreed with the other appellate court's ruling, affirming the conviction of an adult who repeatedly drove by a group of young girls and yelled obscenities.

Harrell said the bill attempts to alleviate ambiguities and exempts speech explicitly protected by the First Amendment. It specifically inserts the accepted definition of "mental injury" as defined elsewhere in Florida law and also specifies that victims are eligible for compensation.

"The bill addresses this situation and clarifies the law so that this will not happen again," Harrell told members of the committee, who passed the measure by unanimous vote.

An identical bill has been filed in the Senate, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in that chamber.

Munao is scheduled to be released in December 2008.


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