The 1st Judicial District Court’s Public Defender Department has raised concerns about a bill introduced in the state Legislature last week that would make it a felony for the family member of an abused child to fail to report the abuse.
Chief Public Defender Hugh Dangler says although the bill, introduced by Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, is well-intentioned, it could have unintended negative consequences.
“If everybody could be prosecuted for this new felony, the way family dynamics work, there’s often a family spokesperson who is the one who would report it,” Dangler says. “So everyone else is a felon…[if you report abuse], you’ve now reported everybody else as a felon in your family.”
Dangler’s office submitted an analysis of the bill to the Legislative Finance Committee containing these concerns, he says. In his years of experience as a public defender, he has learned that the complexity of family dynamics makes forced reporting more multifarious than it is for doctors, school officials and social workers, who already are legally required to report suspected abuse.
“Felonies cause people to close ranks, and what you’re trying to do is get the family to open up,” Dangler says. “When you make it another threat from Big Brother, I would think everyone would close down even more.”
Garcia introduced a similar bill in the 2009 session that failed to go anywhere, but says she hopes this one, included in a package of five bills related to child abuse, will have a better fate.
“Every time I open a newspaper or turn on a TV, there’s some other child being abused or killed or raped or strangled or found in a trash bin or whatever,” Garcia says. “[Family] won’t always report it.”