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Mother to seek abuse bill third time

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

DATE: Monday, May 26, 2008

PORT ST. LUCIE Jodi Walsh's 11-year-old son wrote a special message in her Mother's Day card.

"The third time is the charm," he wrote. "I know we'll be able to pass this the third time around."

Walsh said that, after a trip to Tallahassee with her during the recent legislative session, her son became involved in her push to get state lawmakers to create a bill that his experiences inspired.

This Port St. Lucie mom has made it her mission to get Florida legislators to define and clarify the state law on verbal child abuse, which is abuse that hurts a child mentally and emotionally, rather than physically.

For the second year in a row, the bill didn't make it through the process before the legislative session ended.

But Walsh said she will be back next year, and she is not giving up on it - especially now that her son, who is in the fifth grade, has taken an interest in it.

"I gave him the choice. I told him we can stop," Walsh said. "But he doesn't want to stop. When we were in Tallahassee, I think he felt very empowered, like he's doing something for other children."

Walsh's efforts to change the law started after a 2005 court case in St. Lucie County involving her former boyfriend, Edward Munao. A jury convicted Munao of child abuse and solicitation to commit aggravated battery in connection with statements he made to their then-6-year-old son.

Although Munao never physically harmed the boy, prosecutors argued that 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 serving a five-year sentence for the solicitation to commit aggravated battery conviction, and he is scheduled to be released this year.

The proposed bill aims to criminalize verbal abuse, with some conditions. For example, it would exempt speech that is expressly protected by the First Amendment from being prosecuted as child abuse, which supporters hope will end concerns that the law could intrude on parental rights.

The proposal also defines mental injury as injury caused by the same abuser "to the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by a discernible and substantial impairment in the ability of the child to function within the normal range of performance and behavior as supported by expert testimony."

The proposal also would classify mental injury as a crime that victims could be compensated for through a state trust fund.

Walsh, who created a nonprofit organization called Childs Cry For Help to promote education about emotional abuse, said she hopes changes in the dynamics of the state legislature next year will help the bill. She said her two years of lobbying have appeared to help by making more lawmakers aware of the situation and supportive of her bill.

"We're definitely going to bring it back," she said. "We'll see what happens."

State Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, has championed the bill for the past two years, but she is leaving the House to run for U.S. Congress. Harrell said the state House passed the bill, but it stalled in the Senate this year.

Harrell said she hopes Walsh finds a new sponsor for the bill. It is important for the public to know that verbal abuse can do just as much damage as physical abuse, she said.

"The scars are lifelong," Harrell said. "I was very disappointed this wasn't passed this year."

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