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By Rose Hoban
Two bills to increase protections for children made it through a judiciary committee Wednesday and onto the floor of the state House of Representatives.
The first bill was inspired by the high-profile 2011 case of Florida toddler Caylee Anthony, who was found dead after being missing for a month. The bill would add to child-abuse laws and make it a criminal offense not to report the disappearance of a child within 24 hours.
In the case of Caylee Anthony, her mother, Casey Anthony, was tried for her murder and eventually acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
“In Florida, prosecutors couldn’t get to a point where they could prove murder,” said Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Charlotte), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “There were all these other things that there was evidence for, but there was no chargeable offense.”
“Under the current child-abuse laws, it’s not clear that failure to report a missing child would constitute child abuse,” Schaffer explained. “We’re putting that duty to report in our law.”
Karen McLeod, head of the Child Fatality Task Force, said she’s pleased Caylee’s Law is moving forward. The CFTF reviewed the law during the interim between sessions and recommended passage.
North Carolina now joins at least 10 other states in drafting a version of Caylee’s Law.
Smoothing the way to adoption
Another bill to make adoptions easier also made it through the House Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee.
“The adoption bill is really technical components to smooth how we get adoptions through the system,” said McLeod. “You run into snags in making sure you get the adoption completed, and holding up adoptions is never good for kids.”
One of the fixes makes it easier to complete the adoptions of children who are in the foster-care system.
“Often infants are adopted very quickly, but sometimes an older child may be relinquished by parents and has to be in foster care for some time before being adopted,” said attorney Deana Fleming from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
Fleming’s office runs the guardian ad litem system that provides advocates for abused and neglected children who end up in the legal system. More than 15,000 children received free legal representation through the program in fiscal year 2011-12.
Fleming said changes in the bill make it clearer that a parent who has relinquished rights to a child would not be involved in court proceedings.
Fleming also said that adoptions can be derailed because the court needs to terminate a father’s rights before an adoption can proceed. But sometimes a mother cannot give information about the father. Without the father’s consent, the child would never be free for adoption, so the bill makes it possible to terminate paternal rights in those instances.
“This bill is this year’s wish list on how we can make adoption more secure and make the procedure more certain,” said Brinton Wright, a Greensboro attorney who chairs the adoption committee of the N.C. Bar Association.
“Hopefully, all these procedural changes we make mean it’s just going to be easier for people to adopt, and there’ll be less instances where an adoption becomes more expensive than you think it will be,” Wright said.