Giving false information when a child is missing and later found seriously harmed or dead, as in the case of Orlando mother Casey Anthony, should be bumped up from a misdemeanor to a felony, law enforcement officers told state senators Monday.
However, those same officers cautioned that declaring a specific time frame for caregivers to report a child missing to law enforcement, as proposed by a number of Caylees Law bills now before the Florida Senate, could have unintended consequences.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Protecting Floridas Children, said he may be swayed by officers' testimony to carve out language that would boost the penalty for giving false information in a missing-child case when serious injury or death is found to have occurred.
In instances where there is ultimately great bodily harm or death to a child, the misdemeanor provision may not give law enforcement tools they need, Negron said.
The committee is reviewing five bills that were spurred by public outcry following the trial of Orlando mother Casey Anthony this summer.
Anthony was acquitted of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter, but convicted of four misdemeanor counts of providing false information to a law enforcement officer.Each guilty charge came with a one-year prison term and $1,000 fine.
When arrested, she was charged with neglect, but prosecutors did not pursue that charge in court.
Caylee Anthony was reported missing July 15, 2008, after a series of events prompted her grandmother, Cindy Anthony, to track down her daughter, who was at her boyfriend's Orange County apartment. Caylee was nowhere to be found and it was later determined the child, later found dead, had been missing for 30 days.
Each bill before the Senate would make it the duty of the primary caregiver to notify law enforcement that a minor -- in two of the bills a child 12 or younger -- has been missing within 12 to 48 hours.
Right now, people think they have to wait 24 hours, said Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones. Setting any time limit sends the wrong message.
Manatee County Sheriffs Maj. Connie Shingledecker, who chairs the state Child Abuse Death Review Team, said many think they have to wait "24, 48 or even 72 hours" before reporting a child missing. Setting a hard time frame, she said, could further hinder people making calls.
If a child has suffered serious injury, permanent disfigurement, great bodily harm, or death, perhaps then this is where you would want to pursue a felony, she said.
However, she cautioned, the law needs to be very specific in explaining what notifying law enforcement entails. Parents who simply call 911 to report a child missing or injured, for instance, are not necessarily reporting an incident to police.
Also, she said, there are times a child is found wandering and unharmed where the parents didnt know the child was missing.
The state Department of Children and Families requires caregivers to immediately report missing children 11 years old and younger, and allows four hours to locate those between 12 and 17 before reporting.
Negron said the committee will have at least one more meeting before deciding how to move forward with any of the bills.
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.