It’s difficult to oppose these proposed “Caylee laws” soon to be introduced in state legislatures, including in Oklahoma, that will make it a crime for a parent not to report a missing or a dead child.
Who can oppose making it criminal when there’s a clear sign of negligence when it comes to children? What’s wrong with having another law that deals with child neglect and abuse?
But these proposed laws are really just overwrought reactions to the sensational news coverage of Casey Anthony’s murder trial, they will probably overlap with other child abuse and criminal laws and they miss the crux of what we should be worried about, which is the safety and welfare of children. A law making it a crime to not report a child’s death will most likely not prevent that death from happening. The focus should be on prevention, not retribution.
Caylee Anthony was the two-year-old girl found dead in Florida in 2008. Her mother, Casey, 25, was recently found not guilty on charges related to the child’s death, and her trial was heavily hyped and sensationalized by the corporate media. When the verdict was televised, there was a huge outcry that ignored legal precedence and cultural reality. (I wrote about that here.)
I won’t rehash the trial here, but one issue that came up was Anthony’s failure to report her daughter missing, and, indeed, for any parent to not report a missing child, especially one as young as Caylee, seems abhorrent. But aren’t existing laws about child neglect and reporting crimes sufficient to cover this?
Oklahoma, of all places, actually got into the spotlight after the verdict. A Durant woman’s online petition in support of a federal Caylee’s law went viral, and state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (R-Moore) started publicly and immediately discussing the idea of a similar state statute. Both seem well intentioned and have plenty of support, but let’s take a step away from the breathless, sensationalized coverage of the trial and the immediate public outcry and consider this:
(1) Proposed Caylee’s laws are really just reactions to the fiction and mob-like anger produced by television “stars,” such as Nancy Grace. The proposed laws create another layer of fiction, making it seem that we’re actually doing something to avenge Caylee’s death. It might make some of us feel good or useful, but it’s really just a visceral response carefully orchestrated by sensationalized journalism. These Caylee’s-law proposals validate this type of tabloid reporting, which pretty much ignored legal considerations-innocent before proven guilty, reasonable doubt, etc.-and the reality of the many, many children murdered each year in this country.
(2) Child abuse laws throughout the country obviously make serious neglect of a child a criminal offense. If a parent, for example, refused to feed a child or left a child home alone at an inappropriate age or abandoned a child then they could face severe, legal consequences under the broad rubric of neglect. Obviously, not reporting a two-year-old child missing should fall under this rubric. Also, what would be the unintended consequences of a Caylee’s law? Would prosecutors use it to simply pile on charges in child abuse cases that, again, might satisfy the desire for retribution, but does nothing to really address the underlying social problem?
(3) The proposed laws redirect our attention away from a more measured response to the trial, which should be predicated on this question: How can we lower the child murder rate in this country? Hundreds of children are murdered each year as the result of abuse from parents or caretakers. What legislation, if any, could help change that? Are there new programs we could create to lower the rate? Should we hire more social workers focused on children? What proactive laws or initiatives could address the problem?