First came the mother of a 5-year-old Columbia, Md., boy who was molested by his counselor at a county summer program. The counselor, later imprisoned for the crime, had two previous convictions for sexual abuse of children, according to the boy's mother.
Then came the Greenbelt man, father of a 5-year-old boy subjected to fondling by a male day-care worker. The boy repeated the story for the prosecutor and grand jury, but in a courtroom last month, facing his abuser without his parents in the room, he "froze up," said his father, and the case was thrown out.
These were among the stories told to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee today as the panel opened hearings on a controversial package of bills to expand the rights of children and better protect them from abuse by adults.
The package is drawn from citizen testimony, a task force report and examples from other states also grappling with dramatic increases in reported cases of abuse. It includes measures that would require background checks for certain child-care workers and teachers, allow testimony from children on closed-circuit television in some court cases, make it easier to obtain convictions for child pornography and establish stiff penalties for certain professionals who fail to report suspected child abuse.
Supportive testimony came from parents, law enforcement officials, state's attorneys and Dr. Charles Shubin, who has treated victims of child abuse and is an advocate of penalties for nonreporting of abuse.
"I'm sorry to report that members of my profession do not report. I know because I see these children," said Shubin, chairman of a child abuse task force that has been reviewing proposals for two years.
Despite the heavy attention focused on child abuse this session -- the measures are a key component of a "youth initiative" being pushed by Gov. Harry Hughes this year -- opposition to some of the bills has surfaced recently.
Though listing itself as a supporter, the Maryland State Teachers Association testified today that the measure requiring background checks should be amended to allow school boards some discretion in dismissing teachers with previous convictions for abuse or assault, arguing that mitigitating circumstances must always be considered.
"Our union is not going to take a position in defense of anyone that is going to abuse children," said Curtis Johnson, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which also opposed the bill, "but we don't believe this type of legislation should be used as a witch hunt."
Members of the House Judiciary Committee, which will take up the same legislation later this week, also expressed some concerns about whether the rights of the child and the accused are appropriately balanced.
Despite the opposition expressed by some witnesses today, the legislature is perceived as more receptive to the child abuse bills than to other parts of the governor's youth initiative.
Last week a House committee killed a bill that would have reshaped an education program for disadvantaged 4-year-olds. The same committee is also scrutinizing -- and is expected to kill -- an employment program for potential high school dropouts.
In other action today, a House Appropriations subcommittee moved to impose restrictions in several areas of the Social Services Administration budget involving foster care and other child-welfare programs. The language will require the agency to report to the legislature before receiving funds for next year.