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Legislative Initiatives Address Child Abuse

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The national attention focused on child abuse in recent months has produced a spate of legislative initiatives designed to protect children and regulate child-care facilities.

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate that would require federal agencies to conduct background checks for possible criminal records among potential day-care center employees.

In introducing the legislation, Senator Grassley noted that there are an estimated 74,700 reported sexual offenses against children each year and that three to four times that many incidents are not reported. Hearings on the bill are currently before the juvenile-justice subcommittee.

The House has approved the child-abuse amendments of 1984, a bill to reauthorize the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The bill includes a provision authorizing assistance to the states for establishing preventive services and shelters for victims of family violence and their dependents, according to Ann Rosewater, deputy director of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

The Senate has a corresponding reauthorization bill that is currently awaiting consideration on the floor. That bill does not incorporate the family-violence amendment, but a companion bill has been introduced to include that measure, Ms. Rosewater said.

In addition, she said, last week, Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecti-cut and co-chairman of the Senate Children's Caucus, indicated he would introduce additional legislation to respond to the child-abuse problem. His measure, Ms. Rosewater explained, would reward state efforts to develop child-abuse-prevention programs.

The select committee is considering introducing corresponding legislation in the House.

School-Age Day Care

In California, site of the child-abuse case that has attracted shocked national attention, legislators have introduced a number of bills related to child abuse and day-care centers.

Last month, the Senate Education Committee approved two bills on day care for school-age children.

The first bill would provide $100-million for financing based on a sliding scale for children's programs, preferably on school grounds. The second would set standards for their operation and would require that program operators give top priority to students at risk of abuse or neglect.

Another bill would provide $15 million to locate children who are identified as being likely to be abused and would provide day care for them.

Stiffer Penalties

Two other Senate bills would increase the penalties for convicted child abusers. The measures would raise the penalty for abuse that results in death from second-degree murder to first-degree murder and would require that convicted child molesters undergo psychiatric tests before receiving parole.

One of the bills would also make it easier for young victims to testify against suspected abusers by allowing as evidence hearsay statements from victims under the age of 7.

The California Assembly's Education Committee last month approved a bill requiring criminal-record checks of all new employees of private elementary and secondary schools.

The measure would require employees to submit fingerprints to the California Department of Justice. The department would then send to employers and new employees a copy of any criminal record for convictions of sex, violent, and felony-drug crimes, according to Amy Strassburg, a legislative aide.

In California, all public-school employees are presently required to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal-records check, Ms. Strassburg said. The bill does not apply to preschools, which now require that employees be fingerprinted through the State Department of Social Services, she said.

The legislation was introduced the legislation at the request of the Alameda County Board of Education, which found that some former public-school teachers whose licenses were revoked because of criminal convictions were later hired by private schools.

Child-Abuse Package

The California Assembly is also considering a "1984 Legislative Child-Abuse Package" that contains 29 bills. One bill would provide $23 million for child-abuse-education programs in elementary and secondary schools, according to Chet Olsen, consultant to the Assembly Select Committee on Child Abuse.

A bill that would toughen penalties for those who fail to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect and cover any legal costs incurred by those who do is included in the package. The bill would increase the fine for failure to report from $500 to $5,000.

Another bill would subject California citizens who know of cases of abuse and fail to report them to civil liability.

Still another bill would require professionals who are mandated by law to report suspected cases of child abuse to sign a statement regarding that obligation before they begin working.

Revising Prosecutions

In Los Angeles, the Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence plans to call for sweeping revisions in investigations and prosecutions by state and local authorities to put an end to what the agency sees as a pattern in which victims suffer more than offenders.

Assistant Attorney General Lois H. Herrington last month recommended that videotaped rather than in-person testimony from abused children be permitted in court actions and that criminal sanctions be established in family-violence cases. She spoke at the Third National Conference on Sexual Victimization of Children in Arlington, Va., a conference sponsored by the Children's Hospital National Medical Center. (See related story on page 9.)

The task force's report is scheduled to be released in September.

To deal more effectively with an estimated 50,000 child-abuse cases each year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last month established a new Department of Children's Services. Services now handled by the Department of Public Social Services, the Probation Department, and the Department of Adoptions will come under the auspices of the new agency in September.

Other State Legislation

Last month, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo signed into law a bill that, effective Nov. 1, makes New York the 48th state to allow the conviction of a child molester solely on the victim's testimony. Only the Dis-trict of Columbia and Nebraska continue to require that corroborating evidence be presented.

Gov. Toney Anaya of New Mexico in March signed into law a bill making it a felony to manufacture, distribute, or profit from child pornography. The Sexual Exploitation of Children Act makes distributing child pornography a fourth-degree felony and profiting from or encouraging a child to participate in child pornography a third-degree or second-degree felony, according to Representative Mary Tucker, who sponsored the bill in the legislature.

Under the law, which is effective on July 1, parents who allow their children to be used for pornography will face fourth-degree felony charges, Ms. Tucker said.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jay Rockefeller 4th has signed into law the West Virginia Child Protective Services Act. The act includes 10 articles relating to abuse and neglect, describing the rights of parties during hearings, requiring abuse and neglect proceedings to be given priority on court dockets, and describing the procedure for transferring temporary custody of a child alleged to be abused or neglected, according to Sheree Lovely, a spokesman for the legislature.

The act authorizes a child-protective worker to take custody of an abused child under certain circumstances without a court order, requires a medical procedure for examining abused children, and authorizes the creation of a children's trust fund for child abuse and neglect prevention.

The act also increases the penalty for failure to report suspected cases of child abuse to a misdemeanor, punishable by 10 days in jail or a $100 fine, Ms. Lovely said. The legislation goes into effect on June 10.

And in Florida, lawmakers are weighing a bill that would require first-time applicants for teacher certification to be fingerprinted and checked against national crime records. (See related story on page 1.)

--ab Correspondent Michael Fallon contributed to this report.

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