During the Legislature’s monthly interim committee meetings, the Joint Select Committee on Children, Juveniles and other Issues is considering proposing a version of what has become known as “Caylee’s Law,” which would create a felony for a parent or guardian to fail to report a missing child in a timely manner.
Caylee Anthony was a child whose disappearance attracted a great deal of media attention in the United States. Her skeletal remains were discovered on December 11, 2008. Caylee was last seen on June 16, 2008, but her mother didn't report her missing. The child's grandmother notified authorities July 15 of that year.
Her mother, Casey Marie Anthony, was found not guilty of first degree murder, aggravated manslaughter of a child, and aggravated child abuse in July. She was found guilty of four misdemeanor counts of providing false information to a law enforcement officer. On July 7, 2011 she was sentenced to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines for each count – time already served. Casey Anthony is now on probation for a check fraud conviction.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, several states have already introduced Caylee’s Law legislation: Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee. NCSL reports no states criminalize failing to report missing children, though some states have laws that contain penalties for filing false missing children reports and and not reporting abuse of neglect of children.
Current West Virginia Code makes it a felony if a child dies in the care of a parent, guardian or custodian due to abuse and neglect. It is also a felony to conceal a human body when death occurred due to criminal activity.
The Committee on Children recently heard details on draft legislation of a bill that would punish parents who fail to report a missing child within 24 hours. The draft legislation would require custodians of children aged 11 and younger to report missing children within 12 hours of a disappearance. Children between 12 and 17 years old would have to be reported missing within 24 hours, under the bill.
The law defines a custodian as the person who is in charge of childcare at the time of the disappearance. That could include grandparents, friends, babysitters or neighbors.
Once the custodian realizes a child is missing, he or she must notify authorities, although law enforcement is not limited to 911 centers, under the draft legislation.
If custodians fail to report a child older than 11 missing, the guardian could face up to one year in prison and a fined up to $500. For children 11 and younger, the proposed penalties would be harsher. Custodians would have to report the child missing within 12 hours or be fined up to $3,000 and face up to three years behind bars.
If a child who suffers from health or mental problems that increase the risk of substantial injury goes missing, age would not be a factor in the law. Any failure to report the missing child within 24 hours would result in a $3,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
The harshest punishment would be reserved for custodians who do not report a missing child because they are involved in some kind of criminal activity. The draft legislation calls for up to 13 years behind bars for those offenders.
Some lawmakers wondered whether the exact 24-time frame could be determined in an exact fashion. Others have raised questions about creating yet another felony when other laws could be enforced to the same end.
The committee will continue to look at the bill. If the committee endorses a final version of the legislation, it would be introduced during the 2012 regular legislative session in January. In addition, individual legislators may introduce their own versions of a “Caylee’s Law” for lawmakers to consider.