'Caylee's Law' petition drive: Do missing child laws need to change?

'Caylee's Law' petition calls for establishing two new federal offenses: failure of a parent to notify authorities of a missing child within 24 hours and failure to report a child's death within one hour. The online drive comes amid public anger over the Casey Anthony verdict.

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    This undated photo released by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Fla. on July 18, 2008, shows Caylee Anthony. A 'Caylee's Law' petition is circulating online at Change.org, a social change platform.
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One of the most unfathomable aspects of the just-concluded Casey Anthony murder trial was that no one reported 2-year-old Caylee Anthony missing, or dead, until a month after the child's disappearance. That's something that Michelle Crowder has set out to discourage in the future – by making "failure to report" a federal crime.

Ms. Crowder, of Durant, Okla., has created a "Caylee's Law" petition, which is circulating online at Change.org, a social change platform. The petition had collected more than 475,000 online signatures by Thursday afternoon, two days after a Florida jury acquitted Ms. Anthony of charges, including capital murder, that she was responsible for Caylee's death.

The Caylee's Law petition calls for establishing two new federal offenses: the failure of a parent, legal guardian, or caretaker to notify law enforcement of a missing child within 24 hours, and the failure to report the death of a child within one hour of discovery.

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“The case of Caylee Anthony was tragic, and there is no reason for another case like this one to hit the courts," Crowder writes in the petition letter. "Let's do what is necessary to prevent another case like this from happening.”

The petition coincides with a burst of public outrage over the outcome of the Casey Anthony trial. Anthony, Caylee's mother, was convicted of four misdemeanor counts of lying to police and will be released from jail July 13.

People might be supporting the Caylee's Law petition because they disagree with the verdict, suggests Corey Yung, associate professor of criminal law at The John Marshall Law School, in Chicago. “This just seems like this is an instance of people just wanting to do something, and [Caylee’s Law] seems to be a place where outrage has been directed,” he says.

Crowder acknowledges she is among those who don't believe that justice was done. "When I saw that Casey Anthony had been found not guilty in the murder of little Caylee, and that she was only being convicted of lying to the police about her disappearance, I was sickened,” Crowder says. “I could not believe she was not being charged with child neglect or endangerment, or even obstruction of justice.”

Her objections seem moderate compared with the fury being vented in social media and TV current affairs programming during the past two days. On Facebook, users have created several pages to express their views about the verdict, such as “There was NO Justice for Caylee 7/5/2011,” which registered nearly 120,000 “likes,” and “100,000 People Who Think The Casey Anthony Verdict Was Wrong,” with about 259,000 “likes.”

On Fox News’s "The O'Reilly Factor" on Wednesday night, host Bill O’Reilly duked it out with guest Geraldo Rivera over the verdict. “The mother has the 2-year-old in the house. The 2-year-old is gone. The mother says nothing and lies about it. Come on, that’s neglect,” he exclaimed.

But is a Caylee's Law really needed?

Current federal law requires police to report each case of a missing child to the National Crime Information Center. If the missing person is under age 21, the law requires police to file the case immediately, omitting the waiting period for filing cases on missing adults. The law was modified during the Bush administration to allow immediate reporting of young people between ages 18 and 21, after 19-year-old Suzanne Lyall, a student at State University of New York at Albany, went missing in 1998.

Every state has statutes requiring certain individuals, such as social workers, teachers or physicians, to report suspected child abuse in particular circumstances, but no statute or federal law currently exists that requires someone to report a missing person or child.

“There’s an incredible number of laws named after tragic incidents involving children,” says Mr. Yung. “By and large, these statutes are born out of rage and often passed by majority, without debate.”

The Caylee's Law petition has prompted several lawmakers to learn more about their own states' requirements for reporting missing children.

“I was shocked to find that we don’t have such a law in Oklahoma,” says state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (R), who says he has been receiving many e-mails and petitions from constituents who are angry about the Anthony verdict.

“’I’m not surprised about the outrage, because I’m outraged,” Mr. Wesselhoft says. He intends to introduce a bill during Oklahoma's 2012 legislative session that would require a parent or legal guardian to notify authorities within 24 hours if a child is missing or deceased.

“If my bill were a law in Florida, then Casey Anthony would be facing another six months or a year in jail,” says Wesselhoft, who suggests that measures inspired by the Caylee’s Law petition would be more appropriate at the state, rather than the federal, level. States investigate and prosecute most cases of child abuse, neglect, or death.

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