A bill that would classify child abuse as a separate crime in Delaware and toughen penalties in some child abuse cases is poised to become law. Senate Bill 234, championed by Attorney General Beau Biden, passed the House Thursday in a 34-7 vote.
The measure, which passed the Senate unanimously last week, would create three levels of child abuse in the state. First- and second-degree child abuse would be felonies, and stronger penalties would be applied when the victim is under four years old or has significant intellectual or developmental disabilities. The bill also would create a third-degree child abuse misdemeanor.
The bill did not pass without debate. A number of legislators said they heard from constituents who were concerned that the bill’s language could lead to parents being charged with child abuse for using corporal punishment, such as spanking their children.
House Minority Leader Gregory Lavelle (R-Sharpley) specifically asked Deputy Attorney General Patricia Dailey Lewis if parents who slap their children’s hands in a store to keep them away from candy or who swat them on the backside for misbehaving could be reported for child abuse.
“This bill does not limit a parent’s right to use reasonable and appropriate discipline on their children in any respect,” said Lewis. “That right remains intact.”
Representative Joseph Miro (R-Pike Creek Valley), one of the seven who voted against the bill, worried about how to define what is “reasonable and appropriate” for a parent to do.
“What may be reasonable to me may not be reasonable to someone else,” said Miro.
Dailey Lewis promised the AG’s office will launch a full educational campaign once the bill becomes law.
That was not enough sway Representative Dennis P. Williams (D-Wilmington North), who felt that public hearings should have been held before the bill was even introduced.
“I think it’s unfair to citizens because there were thousands of emails that came in. People were very upset about it. They didn’t understand it. I think we have an obligation to do public hearings so people understand it,” said Rep. Williams.
Williams also said he feels current law covering neglect of a child is adequate and that this bill is “painting the house when it’s already been painted.”
“We don’t need duplication and triplication of legislation,” Williams added. “You take what’s there, read it, try to understand it, and enforce the laws.”
Lewis disagreed. She emphasized that some serious cases of abuse only yield unclassified misdemeanor offensive touching convictions because young children cannot adequately describe the pain inflicted to reach the threshold need to bring more severe charges.
“Often times these are children that cannot speak or are afraid to speak,” said Lewis.
The bill now awaits Governor Jack Markell’s signature.
FY ’13 budget clears state House
The state’s FY2013 operating budget also is ready for Gov. Markell’s signature. The House approved the $3.58 billion spending bill by a 36-5 vote. The five “no” votes came from Republicans Ruth Briggs-King (R-Georgetown), Minority Whip Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View), Harvey Kenton (R-Milford), Lincoln Willis (R-Clayton), David Wilson (R-Bridgeville).
Rep. Briggs–King voted against the final budget despite serving on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. She said the bill included $58 million in spending that had been called called one-time expenditures a year ago but remained in the FY13 budget.
“It’s a strong issue and concern for me that what was supposed to be one-time money last year is now going to become an annual part of the budget,” said Briggs-King. “I just felt we needed to do a little bit better to address that issue.”
House Speaker Robert Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park) praised the budget for holding the line on spending.
“I would like to congratulate the [Joint Finance Committee] for having the lowest budget growth in a decade, 2.2 percent, which is rather remarkable when you look at the growth of Medicaid and public education,” said Speaker Gilligan.
Both the House and Senate still need to vote on the capital budget and the grant-in-aid bill before the session closes Saturday night.
Social media privacy bills remain stalled
One of two bills attempting to secure social media privacy is headed back to the House.
House Bill 309, which passed the House earlier this month, aims to protect students’ social networking site passwords and account information by prohibiting schools, public and nonpublic, from demanding that students disclose their passwords or account information. Schools also would be barred from requesting that students log onto their social networking account to provide direct access to the students’ profiles or accounts.
The bill passed the Senate Thursday, but only after being amended.
The concern with the bill in the Senate centered on the amendment attached to the bill when House approved it 39-0 on June 5. The amendment specified that the legislation covers elementary and secondary schools as well as institutions of higher education. The amendment also created an exemption for police or public safety investigations with reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
During initial Senate debate earlier this week, some senators, including Senator Brian Bushweller (D-Dover/Central Kent), questioned how the inclusion of elementary and secondary schools might affect the issue of cyberbullying.
“Elementary schools in particular need to be able to effectively fight bullying, and one big manifestation of bullying these days is cyberbullying,” said Sen. Bushweller. “The bill [as passed by the House] would have prevented that unless it reached police [investigation] levels.”
Bushweller introduced an amendment excluding elementary and secondary schools from HB 309. The bill with that amendment passed unanimously 21-0.
The bill now heads back to the House for a vote with the Senate amendment attached. In the House, it rejoins House Bill 308, which attempts to protect social media passwords and account information at the workplace by barring employers from requesting employees’ and job applicants’ passwords or demanding access to those sites and accounts. HB 308 was released from committee in May but has yet to reach the floor for a vote.