The House Judiciary Committee, taking a major bite out of Gov. Harry Hughes' so-called youth initiatives package, voted overwhelmingly today to kill a controversial measure that would have required criminal background checks of teachers and other child-care workers.
The measure, aimed at preventing convicted sexual abusers from being unwittingly hired, was equal to "taking a cannonball to kill a fly," Del. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore) said. The committee voted 19 to 1 to kill both the original bill submitted by the administration and the heavily amended version of the measure that had already been approved by the Senate.
A move by several delegates to narrow the application of the checks to day care center workers only, an approach adopted by the Virginia legislature this year, was ignored by the Maryland committee.
Earlier today the House panel also killed a youth measure that would have allowed penalties to be assessed against professionals such as doctors and social workers who fail to report cases of suspected child abuse and neglect.
Chairman Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery) said his committee believed that the bill was poorly drafted and ineffective.
The panel did approve several of the youth bills, including what was likely the second most controversial measure in the package, allowing judges to permit victims of child sexual abuse to testify via closed circuit television. Panel members also passed a measure saying that child victims cannot be barred from testifying in abuse cases solely because of their ages if judges find the children competent.
Owens, known here both for the technical excellence of his committee's bills as well as his scorn for trendy approaches to solving social problems, pronounced himself pleased with the committee's work. "They tightened up the language on some of them; they really looked at them, unlike some people," he said.
The death of the background checks bill was hailed by the Maryland State Teachers' Association, which, though presenting itself at the hearings as a supporter of the measure, worked behind the scenes to amend or kill it. The bill would have required prospective child-care workers to obtain background checks that would indicate whether they had been convicted of a set of crimes including murder, child abuse, rape or kidnaping.
"Obviously we're quite pleased," said V. Thomas Gray II, association lobbyist. "We believe the bill . . . was overdrawn and was too much of a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem without concomitant concern for the rights of employes."
That view was not shared by members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee who were on a task force that wrote most of the legislation. Said Sen. Gerald Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), "It shows that once again the adults who make the laws are giving more weight to the rights of adults than to the rights of children."