Md. laws keep tight lid on case of toddler’s death

July 6, 2012

A 2-year-old girl in Fort Washington is dead, the victim of a horrendous crime, authorities say. Yet in the weeks ahead, the public can expect to learn little if anything from state and local officials about the people involved in the case — about the slain toddler, about the family that took her in as a foster child and about the 12-year-old boy who is charged as a juvenile in her fatal beating.

Aniyah Batchelor will be buried soon. Her foster parents, who have three children of their own — including the alleged killer — have declined to talk publicly about her death. Prince George’s County police and prosecutors and the social-services agencies that were responsible for the girl say they are barred by law from disclosing details about the family, the victim or the suspect, now locked in a youth detention center.

“Privacy issues related to people in care are very sensitive,” said Pat Hines, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees foster children statewide. Citing confidentiality laws, he declined to comment on how closely the Fort Washington family was monitored by social-services workers and whether officials knew of any emotional problems afflicting the boy.

At the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the youngster, spokesman John Erzen also cited privacy statutes: “The first thing I will tell you is, because the [charge] has been filed in juvenile court, it really ties my hands in terms in what I can and can’t say.” He said he was even barred from disclosing the date of the boy’s next closed-door appearance before a judge.

Confidentiality is a hallmark of juvenile-justice systems across the country, part of a philosophy that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment and public shame. It’s legally possible that the boy’s case eventually will be moved to adult court and prosecuted openly. But if it stays in juvenile court and he is convicted or admits that he killed the girl, he could be locked up only until his 21st birthday.

The concept extends to the news media, including The Washington Post, which in most cases does not publish the names of suspects who are charged as juveniles.

Aniyah’s mother, Stephany Cunningham, 25, of Landover, said she lost custody of her two daughters in November after another of her young children, a boy, was severely burned in a bathtub of scalding water. The boy, who already had been removed from her custody, was visiting Cunningham at the time, she said.

Aniyah was placed in a neatly kept split-level house in the 1800 block of Taylor Avenue in Fort Washington. Without disclosing names, police described the foster parents as a man and a woman with three children — the 12-year-old boy and girls ages 15 and 4. With the adults not home Tuesday morning, police said, the teenage girl was in charge of the younger children when Aniyah was killed.

“Our hearts go out to the families,” the state Department of Human Resources said in a statement. The department oversees the county Department of Social Services, which monitors foster children locally. The state agency said the screening of prospective foster parents includes background checks and interviews of all family members and “references from schools on all school-age children in the home.”

The charge filed in Aniyah’s death, second-degree murder, is a lesser offense than first-degree murder because it does not include premeditation. And that legal distinction could be crucial to the future of the 12-year-old suspect.

Under Maryland law, for a boy his age to be prosecuted as an adult, he would have to be charged with a crime that, if committed by an adult, would carry a possible life prison term. For an adult in Maryland, first-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison, but the maximum sentence for second-degree murder is 30 years.

As authorities continue gathering evidence in the case, however, they could decide to upgrade the charge against the boy to first-degree murder. “Certainly, as an investigation continues, charges can change,” said Erzen, stressing that he was not commenting on the boy’s case specifically. “Charges can be dropped, charges can be added.”

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