WRITER: Janet Begley
Monday, April 14, 2008
PORT ST. LUCIE — The sight of an enraged parent screaming at a young child in the supermarket is embarrassing to most people.
But for Jodi Walsh, it's more than public discomfort. It's emotional child abuse.
Walsh, a Port St. Lucie mother, has been on a mission for several years to raise awareness about what she says are deficiencies in Florida law about what defines mental injury and emotional abuse, as opposed to physical abuse, to children. She currently is lobbying for a bill being considered by the state Legislature that would address those problems.
"People need to know that emotional abuse has lifelong effects," Walsh said. "My goal is to make sure that we protect children in the State of Florida from these situations."
She began pushing the issue after her ex-boyfriend and the father of her children, Edward Munao, was convicted in 2005 of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery when he urged their young son over the phone to stab Walsh. He initially was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charges, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal threw out his child-abuse conviction and knocked five years off his sentence, saying words alone do not amount to abuse.
The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Since then, Walsh has formed an organization to raise awareness of emotional abuse, lobbied lawmakers and appeared on national television, including the Montel Williams show and the O'Reilly Factor.
She's garnered the support of State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who sponsored a bill that would include emotional abuse in the definition of child abuse, using the accepted definition of "mental injury" as defined elsewhere in Florida law as the standard. It exempts speech explicitly protected by the First Amendment and also specifies that victims are eligible for compensation.
In 2007, the bill quickly passed two House committees and was on its way to a floor vote, but died in a Senate committee. It was reintroduced this year but has been stalled in the Senate until recently.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Harrell, who hopes that the bill will move from the Senate's Criminal Justice to Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
"I spoke to Sen. (Alex) Villalobos (R-Miami) and he feels confident with the bill. He had a chance to meet with Jody Walsh and her son in Tallahassee personally and he supports it. But the time frame is pressing," Harrell said.
Walsh and her son met with 15 senators during a recent trip to Tallahassee, putting a face on the legislation, she said. If the bill does makes it through the Judiciary Committee next week, Walsh hopes it will be heard this session by the full Senate and eventually become law.
"But we can't take it personally," she said. "Every time we go to Tallahassee, we take a step forward. This issue needs to be a priority and I'm not going to back down."
CHILD'S CRY FOR HELP
• Jodi Walsh is the founder of Child's Cry for Help Inc., a nonprofit organization that assists victims of child abuse and domestic violence, increases awareness for prevention, assists emotionally traumatized children, and presents new legislation for Florida and other states to help victims of child abuse and domestic violence.
• For more information, visit www.childscryforhelp.org
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