Massachusetts Legislature Debates A Controversial Child-Abuse Bill

Critics argue bill is `very scary' because its wording is too sweeping

A BILL in the Massachusetts legislature to punish child abuse and neglect would inflict more harm on families than it would prevent, says a civil-liberties lawyer in the state.

Under the bill, which was passed by the state House of Representatives May 12 and may be debated in the state Senate as early as today, people convicted of child abuse or neglect resulting in serious injury or risk of death could be imprisoned for up to 20 years. A person who inflicts or allows another to inflict lesser harm on a child could be jailed for up to 10 years.

Proponents of the bill say that Massachusetts is the only state without a specific child-abuse law. The bill would provide a powerful tool to prosecutors, who now must rely on general assault statutes to convict child abusers, says a House aide who asked not to be identified. The law also stiffens the punishment for people who abuse or neglect children, the aide says.

But Eric Maxwell, a lawyer with the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, worries that the language of the bill is too vague, giving parents or other caretakers insufficient guidance about prohibited conduct. "It could be applied by district attorneys around the state in a very discretionary and arbitrary manner," he says. "It's very scary."

Mr. Maxwell adds that the proposed law, as currently worded, could be applied in situations "where social services are a better solution for families than criminal prosecutions."

Maxwell says: "I've seen the state intervene in situations when the results were very tragic for families" by pulling them apart.

The House approved the bill after rejecting an amendment proposed by state Rep. Byron Rushing (D) that would have provided a defense for any parent or other caretaker who, holding "sincere religious beliefs," relies on prayer rather than medicine to treat an ill child. The bill - which states that a "person who, having care and custody of a child, willfully or negligently permits serious bodily injury to a child" is guilty of a felony - potentially could be applied to Christian Scientists and others who rely on prayer for healing.

In debate on the House floor, opponents of the amendment cited the case of Robyn Twitchell, a Massachusetts toddler who died in 1986 from what was later diagnosed as a bowel obstruction caused by a birth defect. The child's parents, David and Ginger Twitchell, were convicted in 1990 of manslaughter because they engaged a Christian Science practitioner to heal the boy and a nurse to tend him, and did not take him to a hospital. Prosecutors in the case contended that surgery would have saved Robyn's life. (The Twitchells have appealed the verdict to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.)

"Let's never again have a Twitchell case," Rep. Douglas Stoddard (R) said in the debate. "Let's send out a message loud and clear from this day forward to all Christian Scientists: `Get your children to a doctor.' "

Opponents of the amendment denied that the proposed law, as applied to Christian Scientists and others who rely on prayer for healing, raises an issue of religious freedom. "An adult can choose prayer for treatment, but it's a different standard that comes into play with children," said Rep. John McDonough (D).

"We are faced with a difficult issue when a state mandates medical treatment for a dangerously ill child over the religious objections of the parents," said Rep. Joseph McIntyre (D), chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee. "We conclude that the interest of the child and the state outweigh parents' rights to refuse [medical] treatment."

Christian Scientists disagree, however. "The practice of healing is a vital element of our religion," says Victor Westberg, the spokesman for The First Church of Christ, Scientist. "If that right is cut off, it infringes on the practice of our religion."

"Over 130 years, Christian Scientists have had an excellent track record" in caring for their children, Mr. Westberg says. "Our record is at least as good as medicine's. We do not endanger our children."

Stephen Lyons, one of the lawyers who defended the Twitchells, says the bill, as now worded, "totally reads the rights of religious minorities out of the law." In deciding whether a parent or other caretaker "willfully or negligently permit[ted] seriously bodily injury to a child," jurors will "take the national average," Mr. Lyons says.

"The reasonableness of parents' conduct in connection with their children's health will be judged on an objective standard, not a subjective one," Lyons explains. Laws like this "try to homogenize society, but we're a pluralistic society," he says.

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