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Editorials

‘It absolutely shocks the senses’: Kansas child abuse law failed baby with 31 fractures

 

What would you do when presented with a 3-month-old baby who suffered a ghastly 31 fractures at the hands of a “caretaker”? Would you say, “Whatever we do, let’s not charge him with child abuse”?

That actually happened in Leavenworth, thanks to Kansas’ outrageously outdated child abuse law, which is far too narrow in scope and stunningly feeble in its range of punishments.

“It absolutely shocks the senses,” Leavenworth County Attorney Todd Thompson said of the baby’s suffering. “This child had no way to protect itself.”

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Nor did the Kansas child abuse law do much to help.

Whereas the law might have prescribed as little as two-and-a-half years’ prison in the case — and possibly probation — Thompson wisely chose instead to charge Robert Green with aggravated battery, as if the victim were an adult. With that law, Thompson was able to secure a sentence of seven years.

Even that’s not enough, but it is surely many shades better than the child abuse statute would’ve provided.

The state’s archaic child abuse law also contemplates an old-fashioned, strangely confining range of possible types of abuse, specifically mentioning torture, cruel beating, shaking, and cruel and inhumane corporal punishment.

Thompson, try as he might, didn’t see this case fitting any of those categories. The baby was found to have fractures — some fresh, others in the healing process — to the skull, ribs on both sides, both femurs and to the right tibia and fibula, as well as abdominal trauma. Other than the perpetrator’s eventual admission to having pushed the baby off a couch on one occasion, doctors could only surmise what other torment the infant might have endured, which seems to have included punitive squeezing.

Torture? To the layman, absolutely. But in the exacting world of U.S. criminal law, a more precise term would be aggravated battery.

Thompson, who happens to be president of the Kansas County & District Attorneys Association, plans in the legislative session beginning in January to renew a failed effort from last year to shore up the state’s child abuse law. He wants to see aggravated battery against a child as a specific and more severely punished crime.

Last year’s effort came too late in the legislative session to build momentum — and since Green wasn’t sentenced until Dec. 6, Thompson was ethically prohibited from using the still-open case as a reason for changing the law earlier this year.

Not so, this next year.

Stat Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Democrat from Leavenworth, calls the baby’s case heartwrenching, and says he’s “all in” on changing the law. He’s already working with the Revisor of Statutes’ office on potential language for an “aggravated child abuse” provision to broaden the law’s scope and strengthen its penalties.

State Rep. Susan Humphries, the Republican from Wichita who introduced the child abuse bill last session, says the ramped-up legislation that would create the offense of aggravated child abuse just needs to be tweaked to make sure law enforcement authorities are comfortable with it. She notes that with prosecutors avoiding using the current child abuse law, and instead filing generic aggravated battery charges, that only serves to statistically obscure the extent of child abuse in the state.

“We need to accurately reflect what’s going on,” Humphries told The Star.

Some lawmakers have been fearful of such an enhanced law being misused, Pittman added, so the language must be carefully crafted.

Granted. Still, shouldn’t the greater fear be a child abuse law that’s so flimsy it isn’t used at all?

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