Lolo signs bill to strengthen laws against child abuse
Concerns voiced by the High Court more than three years ago regarding language in the current Child Abuse statute are now being addressed in an administration bill approved by the Fono last month and signed into law last week by Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga, before he left for meetings in the U.S.
The bill further criminalizes certain behaviors and expands the definition of child abuse. It also criminalizes the act of child neglect and amends numerous sections of current law to reflect changes in the ASG agency assigned responsibility for dealing with these issues.
Current law has the Department of Health named as the responsible agency, but the bill gives that responsibility to the Department of Human and Social Services. The bill is to take effect within 60-days after being enacted into law.
In his Feb. 13 letter to the Fono leaders after signing the bill into law, Lolo thanked the Fono for giving their full attention to this important piece of legislation.
“As you know, the children of American Samoa are our most precious resource and their physical and emotional well-being and development rely upon safe, loving and nurturing homes,” Lolo wrote. “If a home becomes insecure and a haven for abuse and neglect, and if parents become a threat to their children, this is something we as people cannot ignore.”
The governor said revisions to the law cited in the bill will clarify the responsibility of government agencies, their roles, and their respective duties regarding the prevention, response and prosecution of child abuse and neglect.
The legislation also streamlines the protocol involved in treatment and protection of children suffering from abuse and neglect, he added.
According to provisions of the bill, a person commits child abuse if that person knowingly causes injury to a child by unreasonable force by “burning, bitting, or cutting a child, striking a child with a closed fist, shaking, kicking or throwing a child.”
Deputy Attorney General Mitzie Jessop told senators late last year that this bill targets cases that have reached the Attorney General’s Office where parents have abused their children by tying them up and beating them with objects — such as a 2x4 piece of lumber.
“We also have situations where children are not only tied up and beaten by their parents, but they (the children) are not fed, or given water,” she said.
Two other ASG officials and a Fono attorney who testified during Fono hearings also told lawmakers that the current law is weak when it comes to dealing with serious crimes against children. Additionally, no provision exists in current statute dealing with “child neglect”.
According to the provision on child neglect, a mother is guilty of child neglect if she uses an illegal substance while pregnant, as may be evidenced by the presence of illegal substance in the child’s or mother’s bodily fluids or bodily substances, withdrawal symptoms in the child at birth, or medical effects of developmental delays during the child’s first year of life that medically indicate prenatal exposure to a controlled substance.
The bill also states that a parent, guardian or other person legally charged with the care of a child is guilty of child neglect if the person purposely or knowingly fails to — among other things — provide the necessary education to a child as required by law; and abandons or ceases providing care for a child without making appropriate provisions for substitute care.
A similar bill was introduced in Fall of 2011, with Rep. Larry Sanitoa being the key sponsor and it had the support of the AG’s Office and others. The bill never made it out of committee the following year and therefore was automatically defeated.
Sanitoa told Samoa News at the time the the measure is the result of the collaborative work between the Fono legal team and the Attorney General’s Office to address concerns raised by the High Court in 2009 when it rejected a plea agreement in the government’s case against Teutusi Satele, who was accused of assaulting a student on a school bus.
Under the plea agreement, the defendant pled guilty to an amended charge of “child abuse” in violation of local law, ASCA 46.3811 — the “Abuse of a child” statute. After reviewing this law, the court found “no criminal conduct prescribed thereunder”.
Although the defendant admitted, under terms of the plea agreement, that he hit a child “we hold that a crime is not indicated under ASCA 46.3811 because this particular statute contains no prescriptive language and is therefore ambiguous,” said the judges.
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