father didn't use his fists to abuse
his child, prosecutors and Walsh
told jurors. He used words and
more than a year after the St. Lucie
County jury convicted Munao, 40, of
child abuse, his fight against that
verdict is raising questions about
how well Florida's laws deal with
child abuse that does not involve a
physical act and visible injury,
only oral statements by an adult
that injure a child mentally and
appeal has brought up issues that
Miami attorney Roy Black, who is
representing Munao, says are "larger
than this case" — issues that touch
on freedom of speech and how parents
can talk to their children.
have a much bigger picture here,"
Black said this week. "When you have
children, how far can you go? Where
do you draw the line?"
Walsh, the aftermath of Munao's
conviction has highlighted what she
says is a need for stronger state
child abuse laws that better clarify
mental injury and emotional abuse.
It has propelled her to create a
nonprofit organization to educate
others about emotional abuse, and to
begin drafting proposed new laws she
plans to present to state
Port St. Lucie mother fears that
there's a chance her ex-boyfriend's
conviction, which was based only on
his statements to their son, could
"These laws need to be changed,"
said Walsh, who works with children
as a speech pathologist. "There are
over 100,000 cases of emotional
abuse reported in the United States
each year. But thousands go
unreported because emotional abuse
is so hard to prove."
Munao's attorneys say Florida courts
—including the West Palm Beach-based
4th District Court of Appeal, which
is considering Munao's case — have
held that oral statements alone
cannot support a conviction for
have to have a physical act
involved," Black said. "You can have
a combination of oral and physical.
But it can't be purely speech."
means Munao was convicted of child
abuse "based on conduct that doesn't
constitute a crime," Black argues.
a trial in which Munao was accused
of urging his then-6-year-old son to
kill his mother, the jury in April
found Munao guilty of child abuse
and solicitation to commit
aggravated battery. During his
sentencing, Circuit Judge Gary Sweet
told Munao: "I think the evidence is
clear that you absolutely abused
this child emotionally and
sentenced Munao to 10 years in
prison, five years for each charge.
Boy would punch, bite, kick
says her son's behavior problems
began at age 3. As the years passed,
it got worse. She says her son would
punch, kick and bite her — "defiance
beyond anybody's imagination."
Sometimes his tantrums would last up
to 55 minutes, she says. She
eventually began to tape the
episodes, in which the boy would
curse at her and scream at the top
of his lungs.
also began to tape Munao's phone
conversations with the boy.
blames Munao for encouraging this
behavior, insisting he taught the
boy to be aggressive toward her. She
says Munao subjected their son to
"emotional mind games and
Jurors apparently believed
prosecutors' arguments, which were
based recordings and testimony about
a 7 1/2 month period, that Munao's
statements to his son constituted
Prosecutors allege it culminated in
a November 2003 phone call when
Munao told the 6-year-old — who was
wildly upset because his mother told
him he couldn't watch television —
to "go into the kitchen, get a knife
and kill your mother."
Throughout the trial, Munao
maintained his innocence and denied
urging the boy to disobey his
mother. He admitted to saying "go
into the kitchen and get a knife,"
but he said the words came out of
his mouth in the heat of the moment
and out of fear for his son, who he
said called him in a frenzy.
moment, he testified, it sounded
like the boy was in fear for his
life. Munao said he never thought
the boy would actually kill his
mother, and it was a technique to
try to calm him down.
firmly believes this was not a
"parenting technique," but abuse.
She believes her son, now in the
fourth grade, is suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder
because of his father's
tell everybody we have good days and
we have bad days," Walsh said. "Some
days he's just this loving, typical
9-year-old child. It's wonderful.
But we also have days when he is
full of anger, full of hate. He's
told me he wants to hurt himself
because he feels like this is all
Black relying on earlier rulings
fighting Munao's child abuse
conviction, Black is relying on
appellate and Supreme Court rulings
made during the case of a former
Palm Beach County special education
teacher, who successfully fought
felony charges that she abused her
attorneys argued the term "mental
injury" under the state's child
abuse laws was illegally broad. In
that case, the courts eventually
ruled the child abuse law regarding
mental injury is legal as long as it
is "narrowly construed" so it does
not apply to speech, Black argues.
Munao's case, the law is
unconstitutionally overbroad because
it "punishes the defendant for
making protected First Amendment
speech," according to papers Black
filed with the appellate court.
assistant attorney general has filed
papers rebutting that argument,
saying Munao was properly convicted.
She argues Munao's statements were
not protected by the First Amendment
because they "exhorted his son to
commit an aggravated battery."
Because his speech was unprotected,
it can be used to form the basis of
a child abuse charge, Assistant
Attorney General Heidi Bettendorf
Still, Black counters by saying the
previous ruling does not
differentiate — it applies to any
type of speech.
Bettendorf, in turn, has asked the
appellate court to reconsider its
previous ruling. She argues that
applying the child abuse law to
unprotected speech does not make the
law illegally broad.
child abuse statute does not
prohibit the mere expression of
ideas or information," Bettendorf
wrote. "Rather, the statute
prohibits statements which could
reasonably be expected to injure the
intellectual or psychological
capacity of a child."
said this case could force the
state's highest court to make the
ultimate decision on what kind of
speech constitutes child abuse.
may end up in front of the Florida
Supreme Court if the state really
pushes for a reinterpretation of the
law," he said. "The question we have
is: Do we have to create a rule that
parents will have to govern
themselves by? If so, how do we do
matter what happens within the
courts, Walsh said she will not give
up her push to get the legislature
to strengthen the laws regarding
emotional abuse. She has created a
Web site, www. childscryforhelp.com,
as an outlet to raise awareness that
abuse doesn't always take a physical
also wants the state to change its
victim compensation laws to apply to
emotional abuse. She was turned down
for compensation because her son's
situation did not result in physical
injury or death.
acknowledges that one negative
statement to a child shouldn't be
considered abuse. But, she said, the
context of the harmful statements
along with the amount of time a
child is subjected to them should be
taken into consideration.
Pierce attorney Juan Torres is
helping Walsh draft proposed
"Right now, I believe the law is
very, very vague when it comes to
emotional trauma," Torres said.
between work and raising her
9-year-old son and 7-year-old
daughter, Walsh spends her time
scouring the Internet and other
sources — research she says has
convinced her that emotional abuse
is just as harmful, if not more in
some cases, as physical abuse.
"That's what people do not realize,"
she said. "It's so much easier for
someone to see a scar or broken
bones or bruises."