Four women who said their daughters have been abused by relatives, child care providers and family acquaintances told Maryland legislators today that state courts have allowed those who abused their children to remain free.
The children, all under 5, have been too traumatized by the incidents to testify in court, the women said. Courts will not accept into evidence statements made by victims to others such as parents and therapists.
Forcing a young child to testify in open court is "like opening the wounds again and pouring more salt into them," said an Annapolis resident who said she discovered last winter that her 3-year-old had been sexually assaulted repeatedly for more than a year.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was asked to support a package of legislation that would institute background checks for teachers and other persons who work with children and allow out-of-court statements, or hearsay, to be used as testimony in certain child abuse cases.
"I've had to watch my little girl regress to an infant every time she has to tell someone" what happened, said another Annapolis resident whose 4-year-old was abused.
"The horror about all of this is the man who did this to my daughter has not even been charged with a crime," she tearfully told committee members, in a voice that shook with emotion. "That monster is walking around free. Why? Because the law says my little girl has to face this man in court and tell everyone what happened. She can't do it."
Last year, the legislature rejected similar legislation, but approved a measure that allows children to testify via closed-circuit television rather than face the accused in court.
However, seven months after the law went into effect, questions about its constitutionality are still being raised by those who are concerned that it would deprive defendants of the right to face their acccusers in court. Prosecutors have yet to use the law.
The woman said her daughter "and the rest of my family are going through a living nightmare while the law, in my opinion, is protecting this criminal."
State Sen. Gerald Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), who served on the Governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect, said the attorney general's office has passed on the constitutionality of the new proposal to allow hearsay testimony in abuse cases.
"There are literally hundreds and thousands of similar parents" like those who testified before the committee, Winegrad said.
The bill that would institute background checks for day care workers was modified to quell objections by teacher unions, who said that such investigations could imply guilt where there was none. The new proposal will mandate background checks only for private and public school teachers and other day care workers hired after July 1.
"We are not singling teachers out, but we're not excluding them either," said Dr. Charles Shubin, chairman of the gubernatorial task force that wrote the legislation. "Pedophiles are going to be where children are."
Philip Caroom of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association also said that allowing hearsay evidence in child abuse cases "represents the single most effective aid to enforcement of child abuse laws to be considered by the General Assembly in recent years."
Even though committee Chairman Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said that passage of the package of legislation is virtually assured, sponsors said they still anticipate that they will run into trouble before the House Judiciary Committee, which rejected portions of it last year.