In the last week, Queens parents have joined in a viral campaign expressing outrage at the verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial. Now their indignation has sparked a bill that would make it a felony for guardians to let the disappearances and deaths of children younger than 16 go unreported for 72 and 24 hours respectively.
Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) has just finished a preliminary draft of the measure, under which the penalty for violation would entail two to seven years in prison. She hopes to soothe the public uproar that followed the sentencing of Casey Anthony, 25, a negligent mother who failed to report her now deceased two-year-old daughter Caylee’s disappearance for 31 days.
Within hours of a Florida jury’s decision to clear Anthony of murder, manslaughter and child abuse charges, and to convict her on four misdemeanor counts of lying to missing child investigators, Oklahoman Michelle Crowder launched an online petition to create Caylee’s Law. Crowder’s notion of justice is stricter than Meng’s: she proposes that caregivers report the death of a child within one hour, and the disappearance of a child within 24.
In only one day, the petition on Change.org had already garnered 100,000 signatures. It now has over one million.
On the Anthony case, Meng said, “I don’t think she’s guilty … but I think not reporting a child missing is wrong.” As the mother of two young children, Meng said she takes the issue personally: “If my kid went missing for five minutes, I would be freaking out.”
She is hardly alone in her distress: the assemblywoman reported receiving about 120 emails concerning the Anthony trial from Queens residents, including non-constituents, since the verdict was announced last Tuesday. Queens parent Joseph Farruggio, who first directed his concerns to Meng, and then the Chronicle, wrote, “Thirty days, or three hours for that matter is an unacceptable period of time to wait (again ... if you’re in your right mind), to report a child missing, or not make an effort in finding that child.” He thinks “any right-minded parent” would promote Meng’s proposed bill as he does.
According to data from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, 20,309 children were reported missing in New York State in 2010. Police say the majority of cases involve runaways, although the next most common explanation for a missing child is abduction by the non-custodial parent; abductions by strangers are rare.
With those facts in mind, 26 bipartisan co-sponsors have signed up to support the Caylee bill, and Meng is now working with state Sen. William Larkin (R-Poughkeepsie) to introduce companion legislation in the state Senate. She intends to contact state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), who has announced plans to push a similar bill.
But is Caylee’s Law vital? Federal law obliges police to report every case of a missing child to the National Crime Information Center. Police must file the cases of missing persons under age 21 immediately, bypassing the waiting period for reporting cases of missing adults. However, “currently there is no law out there making [the failure to report a missing child] a crime,” said Michael DeMartino, special assistant to the president of the New York District Attorneys Association. “There are certain statutes related to child endangerment, but none of them would be on point with this issue. Because the issue is so unique, there should be legislation to address it.”
The Democratic leader of the 26th Assembly District and former president of the city’s old Board of Education, Carol Gresser, spoke effusively of Meng’s proposal. “I am so impressed with Assemblywoman Meng for bringing this bill forward,” Gresser said. “I wish she could make it a federal law, actually.”
Before the state Legislature reconvenes in January, Meng said, she will refine her bill with the District Attorney Association’s aid. She sent the organization the bill language on Tuesday for its review.
One aspect to consider is the time after which a caretaker should be held accountable for reporting a child’s death or disappearance. Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Jamaica), who, as former chairman of the Committee on Children and Families, agrees Meng’s bill would appropriately supplement existing law, and believes the appropriate period would be “between 48 to 72 hours, something along those lines, certainly not 31 days.”
How does the assemblywoman view her legislation’s prospects? “I don’t think it’s an easy bill to pass, but I think the public outcry has been so great, that some law needs to be passed so that this type of situation wouldn’t happen to any kids in the future,” Meng said.
Gresser is more confident the bill will succeed: “I really think it has a fabulous chance of passing, because people are so outraged that someone who should have been punished,” like Casey Anthony, “wasn’t.”
Lawmakers in numerous states are now sponsoring comparable laws.