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Mother persists on verbal child-abuse law

 Sarah Prohaska
DATE: Sunday, May 20, 2007

Port St. Lucie mom Jodi Walsh received a firsthand crash course in the inner workings of state politics this year.

This political novice-turned-activist persuaded a Treasure Coast lawmaker to take up her push to get legislators to better define and clarify its law on verbal child abuse - which hurts mentally and emotionally rather than physically.

Over the course of a year, she's amassed a lengthy contact list, testified in front of a House committee and spoken about her personal experiences on national television shows, including The O'Reilly Factor and The Montel Williams Show.

But the bill she urged lawmakers to pass this year didn't make it through the process before the session ended May 4.

Still, Walsh said that just because the bill died this year, she's not giving up on it.

"We're definitely going to put the bill back out there again," said Walsh, who runs a nonprofit organization called Childs Cry for Help while also working as a speech therapist. "I've already started to re-lobby for it. I'm already making calls and sending out letters."

Walsh's efforts to change the law can be traced to a 2005 court case in St. Lucie County involving her ex-boyfriend, Edward Munao. A jury convicted Munao 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 the child through manipulation and by encouraging the boy to be aggressive toward Walsh. Ultimately, they said Munao urged the boy to get a knife and stab his mother.

However, Munao's child abuse conviction was overturned by the 4th District Court of Appeal because the judges ruled state law prohibits a child abuse charge based only on statements made to a child. The Florida Supreme Court declined to take up the state's appeal of that decision. Munao is still serving a five-year sentence for his conviction for solicitation to commit aggravated battery.

"There is a loophole in the law right now that needs to be clarified," Walsh said. "And the justices in the state of Florida have left it up to the legislature."

State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who has been a leading advocate for the bill and sponsored it in the House, said she will make it a priority during the next legislative session. Harrell and Walsh said it took awhile this year to hammer out appropriate language for the bill, and it was still in a Senate committee when it ran out of time and the session ended.

They said they plan to file it as soon as possible for the next session to avoid another timing issue.

"I think we're pretty happy with the language now," Harrell said. "We want to make sure this happens. We have worked so hard on it and carefully crafted it narrowly so that it does not infringe on parental rights."

But not everyone is convinced the law needs to be changed. Miami attorney Roy Black, who represented Munao during his appeal, said he believes the change is unnecessary. He said it's too difficult to put limits on parental speech - too much is left up for interpretation.

"You have to be very careful when you attempt to punish people for speech. Where do you draw the line?" Black said. "I'd rather err on the side of the First Amendment than on the opposite."

The proposal would exempt speech that is expressly protected by the First Amendment from being prosecuted as child abuse. Walsh said she hopes that clause will end any concerns that the law could intrude on parental rights. The proposed bill also includes mental injury as a crime that victims could be compensated for through a state trust fund.

Between now and the beginning of the next legislative session, Walsh said she wants to lobby Gov. Charlie Crist to find out where he stands on the issue.

"We're very confident with what we're doing," she said.

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