Lawmakers in Maryland debated on Thursday whether to impose among the harshest penalties in the nation on parents who fail to report a missing or dead child. Maryland is one of more than a dozen states considering such a move after a Florida mother, Casey Anthony, was acquitted last year of the most serious charges, including murder, in the death of her 2-year-old daughter.
Dubbed “Caylee’s Law” after the child, whose disappearance Anthony never reported to police, it would make failure to report within a day a missing child younger than 13 a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The penalty would be almost seven times the maximum sentence in New Jersey, which last month became the first state to enact such a law.
Thirteen states have introduced some version of “Caylee’s law” since Anthony’s acquittal last July, when outrage over the case prompted efforts to make failing to report a missing child criminal.
While the bill’s chances in Maryland are unclear, the measure has bipartisan support in the House of Delegates, with 14 Democratic and 26 Republican sponsors. An identical bill also has bipartisan support in the Senate.
“Our office has received hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls asking Maryland to make not reporting a child’s death or disappearance a criminal offense,” Del. Susan Aumann (R-Baltimore County), the bill’s chief sponsor on the House side, told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Under the bill, parents would have to report the death of a child within one hour. Whether parents could be charged for not reporting a teenager missing would depend on certain conditions, such as whether the child was mentally ill.
The bill received a cool reception from some members of the committee. One complaint was the bill’s complexity and possible overlap with child neglect and reckless endangerment laws.
“There’s a couple of pages of different circumstances, different ages, different fines ... There’s a lot of laws already on the books,”said Del. Michael McDermott (R-Wicomico).
Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Allegany) presented at Thursday’s hearing a competing “Caylee’s law” bill with fewer sponsors and slightly different provisions. The requirement to quickly report a child’s death prompted a tough question from Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery).
“I had a sister who was younger than me. She passed away at home due to cancer,” Arora said. “If my parents allowed two hours to go by, am I correct that they would be in violation of this bill?”
Kelly said police and the state’s attorney office would use “prosecutorial discretion” and “never prosecute” such a case.
Mark Graber, associate dean at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said “Caylee’s law” is generally problematic because it’s not “obvious.” Some parents’ first impulse might be to contact friends and family, not law enforcement, when they discover a child is missing, Graber said.
“It’s not clear to me that the parents will know that they must contact the police within 24 hours,” he said, adding the law might “pick up a lot of people who are relatively innocent who just made judgment mistakes.”