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‘Caylee’s Law’ sensible

  • Published Friday, July 15, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, July 15, 2011, at 6:42 a.m.

The need for a “Caylee’s Law” in Kansas seems suspect at first, just as House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, seems to be seeking headlines in proposing it. Then again, there really ought to be a law against saying nothing when your young child goes missing.

As O’Neal told the Lawrence Journal-World: “Kansas law should ensure that the authorities have the information they need to swiftly and safely recover missing children and include criminal penalties sufficient to address the intentional failure to report a child’s death or disappearance.”

Though such situations are blessedly rare in the state, Kansas wouldn’t just be overreacting to the trial and acquittal of Florida “tot mom” Casey Anthony if it passed such a law.

Such legislation could have been applicable in the case of Adam Herrman, the adopted 11-year-old who disappeared from a Towanda mobile home in May 1999. His adoptive parents, Doug and Valerie Herrman, so far have faced only felony theft charges for continuing to accept thousands of dollars in state adoption subsidies after he disappeared. They pleaded guilty to that charge last month in Butler County District Court and still face sentencing, but what happened to Adam remains a frustrating mystery. At the time, the Herrmans told relatives the lie that Adam had been returned to state custody because of behavior problems. They have since said that he ran away after being spanked.

Under O’Neal’s proposal, failure to notify law enforcement of the death or disappearance of a child would carry criminal penalties. Kansas Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki supports the idea.

Pushed by a Change.org   petition that has garnered 1.2 million signatures, leaders in at least 28 states are discussing such laws, which could have held Anthony accountable for failing to report in June 2008 that her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, was missing or dead.

It took a month of Casey’s lies before Caylee’s grandparents reported her disappearance to authorities. The toddler’s remains were found five months later. Last week, her mother was acquitted of murder and convicted only of four misdemeanor counts of lying to investigators. Her punishment nearly complete, Casey Anthony is set to be released from jail Sunday.

If a “Caylee’s Law” now proposed in Florida had been in place, she could have faced 15 years in prison.

These proposals are legally tricky because it can be hard to know exactly when kids disappear or die — as in the Anthony case. Florida would make it a felony to fail to report the death or “location of a child’s corpse” within two hours of the death. Alabama would require notification of a child’s death within an hour and disappearance within 24 hours.

Such laws demand a reasonable age cut-off, so that a rebellious teen’s disappearing act doesn’t spark a parent’s prosecution. Most would apply to kids under 12.

In general, lawmakers should beware of bills named after victims and inspired by solitary crimes. They tend to be emotionally loaded, hard to debate and harder to vote against.

But whatever O’Neal decides to call it, such commonsense legislation seems worth a look in Kansas.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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