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AG finds amendments to Child Abuse law acceptable

The Attorney General’s Office is not opposed to two major amendments made by the House to its version of an administration bill—which further criminalizes and expands the definition of child abuse— and the Senate has approved in final reading the House version, which now goes back to the faipule.


The Senate approved last September its version of the same bill without any changes and sent it to the House, where Representatives made two major amendments to ensure clarification of certain provisions of the measure.


When the House version arrived in the Senate in the later part of September last year, the Fono was prepared to end the 2nd Regular Session and senators opted to wait until this month to hold any necessary hearings on the bill.


As previously reported by Samoa News, the House’s two major amendments clarify what is considered “a dangerous instrument” that may be used to threaten a child. The amendment states that a dangerous instrument is any instrument, article, or substance, which under the circumstance in which it is used, is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury.


The second amendment deleted the words “mentally retarded” from the bill and replaced it with a “person whose mental capacity has been determined by a health professional to be that of someone under the age of 18.”


House members were disturbed about using the term “mentally retarded” in the bill and believe it is no longer appropriate in this day and age.


On Thursday this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono, heard testimony from Deputy Attorney General Mitzie Jessop, who was accompanied by Attorney General-nominee Talauega Eleasalo Ale, in his first Fono appearance since being appointed to the post more than a week ago.


At the outset of the hearing, Soliai reminded committee members that the Senate has already approved its version of this “very important bill” without any amendments and is now pending in a House committee.


However, he said, the Senate now needs to hear directly from the AG’s Office on their opinion of the House amendments, for clarification.


Talauega told the committee that Jessop had worked on the draft of this proposal from the beginning and can provide sufficient input, or further explain in detail any information that is needed by senators. He also pointed out that Sen. Afoa L.S. Lutu, the former attorney general, could also provide additional input on the measure. (Afoa attended the hearing and spoke briefly about the bill).


Jessop explained that after reading the House amendments, the AG’s Office could only identify two major changes and the first change was to delete “mentally retarded” and expand the definition of a person with a mental disability.


She said there are some individuals in the community who are the age of adults, but who have this disability, and therefore have the mentality of a child. “These members of the community must be protected,” she said.


“In our opinion, this amendment does not change the substance of the bill” ... it “just further improves and strengthens the bill,” Jessop said.


As for the second amendment, expanding the definition of “dangerous instrument,” Jessop said this change further defines this provision, which is the same definition in the local Criminal Code.


In other words, this amendment “just redefines it again,” she said and noted that the AG’s Office does not oppose this change, either.


There were no specific questions from senators pertaining to the amendments, but Soliai did remind his colleagues that there were concerns last year from some senators who don't want the bill to conflict with the rights of a parent to discipline a child.


He said this was also the same concern raised by some members of the public; however, current law does allow parents to discipline their children, as long as it does not result in the abuse of a child.  Additionally, this issue was made clear by the AG’s Office during last year’s committee hearing.


Jessop told the same committee last year that Samoans do discipline their children, “This is how we [Samoans] teach our children right and wrong, and it’s important, it’s part of our culture.”


She then pointed out the bill does not prevent a parent from disciplining their children, noting the bill targets cases — such as those that have reached the AG’s office — where parents have abused their children by tying them up and beating them with a 2x4 piece of lumber.


This type of action is “more than just disciplining our children and that is what this bill seeks to stop – that type of behavior,” the deputy AG said. “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.”


Normal parental discipline — cited in provision of current law ASCA 45.0103 — means “all actions by parents, such as administration of blows by hand, strap, or light switch upon buttocks or any firm handling, scolding or light taps, insufficient to seriously bruise or produce medical injury or disability.”