Friday, March 14, 2003

Abuse law holes raise questions

Police: Baby tied, given beer, crack

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

V. Robinson


LEBANON - Inside the rundown Warren Street townhouse, a teenage mother tied up her 10-month-old daughter with a phone cord. Then, a boyfriend of the baby's grandmother poured beer down the infant's throat and blew white wisps of dank crack smoke into her face, police allege.

The 19-year-old mother now faces a misdemeanor charge of child endangering and up to six months in the county jail if she is convicted. Others who lived at the house are under investigation.

As a first-time offender, Crystal Robinson of Morrow is likely to get probation - and a parenting plan that will eventually allow her to have her daughter back, prosecutors said.

Authorities and child advocates say it's a case where the punishment doesn't fit the crime. They say there should be legislation that would elevate the charges and toughen the penalties for such abuse in Ohio. Some experts question Warren County's position on charges, but a key state legislator says the case indicates a flaw in state law.

He said he wants to change child endangering laws so that prosecutors can seek more serious charges in some abuse cases.

"If you steal $500 worth of anything, you have a felony," said John Burke, commander of the Warren Clinton Drug and Strategic Operations Task Force, which raided the suspected crack house at 208 E. Warren St. on Jan. 31.

"But you pour beer down a baby's throat and tie them up, it's a misdemeanor. It should be a felony. But the law isn't clear on this, as crazy as it sounds."

He said drug agents tried to pursue felony child endangering charges against the mother of the infant, only to be told it wouldn't work.

Prosecutors said that only misdemeanor charges fit the case because the infant did not suffer a serious painful injury, risk of death, or continuing psychological damage that would require hospitalization or long-term therapy, Burke said. Ohio law requires those elements, defined as "serious physical harm," for a felony endangering charge.

Warren County Children's Services removed the infant and a 3-year-old male cousin from their grandmother's Warren Street townhouse a day before the grandmother, Victoria Lynn Robinson, 40, and her boyfriend, Eric Harley, 39, were arrested on cocaine trafficking charges.

An informant tipped police off that the baby was being abused. That allegation surprised and sickened neighbor Amy Fee, who has lived around the corner with her husband and young children for four years.

She watched the police raid on the alleged crack house, cautioning her young children to get down on the floor in case bullets started to fly.

While neighbors have long suspected drug activity at the house, Fee said she never observed anyone harming the children when they were outside.

"That's what amazed me. I'm just happy that they are cleaning up the neighborhood," Fee said.

Prosecutors said they also are looking into filing endangering charges against Victoria Robinson and Harley involving the alleged abuse of the 10-month old.

Accused of exposing her child to the drug activity at the house, the mother of the 3-year-old - Jennifer Hall, 22, of Loveland - is scheduled to go on trial May 8 in Lebanon Municipal Court for misdemeanor child endangering.

Crystal Robinson, who is Hall's sister, is accused in Warren County Juvenile Court of violating her duty to care for and protect her daughter by participating in the abuse and for allowing others to mistreat the baby.

"I think the conduct is outrageous. However, it does not rise to the statutory definition of serious physical harm," Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel said, defending her decision to file a misdemeanor. "I would agree with anyone that says maybe we need to look at the definition of serious physical harm."

Hutzel said expert doctors have told her that even a skull fracture of a young child might not fit the bill because its skull is pliable and heals quickly.

"Keeping the child out of the parent's care - that's the real penalty. Those child-endangering cases are hard to prove. It's not an easy statute to work with," she said.

Some legal experts question whether prosecutors went far enough in exploring what charges could be filed in the Lebanon case.

"My sense is that if the child is tied up and the victim of assault, that there are other charges than can be brought besides child endangerment," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.

"I'm sure everybody is outraged,'' Davidson said. "It's hard to think that anybody wouldn't be. It's disgusting. Ultimately, the answer may lie in the legislation in terms of changing the law."

Ohio Rep. Michael Gilb, R-Findlay, who chairs the House Juvenile and Family Law Committee and sits on the Criminal Justice Committee, said he is in favor of changing state law to make it easier to prosecute child endangerment as a felony. He plans to bring up the subject in Columbus.

"Maybe we should look at modifying the physical harm standard," Gilb said. "If all they are able to charge the individual with is a misdemeanor, I agree we need to be examining the area of the law to protect the most vulnerable citizens of our society."

Victor Veith, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, Va., said other states have experienced the same problems, but have revised their child abuse laws to elevate the offense to a felony if the abuse is "likely to cause" serious harm.

To Veith, Ohio's law falls short of protecting children from abuse and neglect.

"The child could have died of alcohol poisoning. Why do we have to have a dead child before we punish someone?" he said.

"Why should they not be punished because they had the good fortune of having a child that could withstand their torture?"


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