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"It Oughta Be A Crime"

2011-01-31

Anyone who intentionally withholds food from an elderly or disabled person in their care, or leaves them unprotected from the elements, can be prosecuted under Maryland law for neglect of a vulnerable adult. A pet owner who shirks responsibility for feeding and caring for an animal can likewise be hauled into court on criminal charges. But a parent who deliberately and repeatedly neglects the basic physical needs of his or her child faces no such threat of penalty — because Maryland is the only state in the union in which child neglect is not a crime.

Child neglect is as serious a problem in Maryland, as it is in the rest of the country. Experts say that it is the most common form of child maltreatment, and that addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach that includes providing intensive social services to families, as well as law enforcement intervention. But officials shouldn't have to wait to act until neglect rises to the level of abuse, with consequent physical injuries or death. Protecting children from neglect is just as important as protecting them from more serious forms of abuse.

Recognizing that vulnerable children need the same kind of legal protections the law already accords to vulnerable adults and domestic animals, Gov. Martin O'Malley has introduced a bill into the General Assembly that would make child neglect a criminal offense, as is already the case with child abuse. Under the governor's proposal, neglect would be defined as the intentional failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the physical needs of a minor and would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Currently, state officials can take custody of severely neglected children and place them temporarily with relatives or in foster care. But after that, there's not much more police or prosecutors can do. While it's true there are many families who benefit enormously from assistance provided by social workers, community service agencies and churches, there are also individuals who need the criminal justice system's intervention in order to affect their behavior.

Critics of the governor's proposal have a point when they argue that locking parents up isn't necessarily the best thing for the children, and that providing counseling and support to keep families together would be more effective. We're also sensitive to fears that the burden of criminalizing child neglect could fall disproportionately on the poor, who have the fewest resources to devote to child care, even though the problem affects families across the socioeconomic spectrum.

But some cases of child neglect are so egregious — every bit as harmful as physical abuse — that they demand society's censure. That's why a broad coalition of child advocacy groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Humane Association and the Child Abuse Subcommittee of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, has endorsed the governor's proposal.

The point isn't merely to be punitive but to hold people accountable for their actions (or lack of them). Judges will still have wide latitude to resolve individual cases through alternative means, including diversion into parental counseling and treatment programs or supervised probation. Criminal penalties may not be appropriate in every case of child neglect, but there will be some cases in which they clearly are. We have to trust judges and prosecutors to use their discretion in such situations.

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