Tom Miller: Focus on protecting children produced three new laws
One out of every 10 children will be a sexual abuse victim by their 18th birthday, according to Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. This startling statistic prompted members of the 2014 West Virginia Legislature to work on creating new laws to stop crimes against children, such as neglect, physical abuse and child pornography.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recently signed three of these bills -- HB4005, HB4006 and HB4139 -- into law. Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, was lead sponsor of HB4005, which had eight other sponsors in the House. It creates a criminal offense for child abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian that causes a substantial risk of bodily injury. Penalties for a first or second offense are misdemeanors while a third or subsequent offense is a felony.
According to figures from West Virginia Child Protective Services, there were 4,591 victims of child abuse in the last reported year.
The second new law, HB4006, deals with the possession and distribution of child pornography. Delegate Phillips was also the lead sponsor of this bill that attracted 10 co-sponsors in the House of Delegates. It passed the House on Jan. 27, but didn't receive final approval by both chambers until the final day of the 2014 regular session on March 8.
This new law makes it a felony for any person who engages in any activity that portrays a minor in "sexually explicit conduct," and violators are subject to up to 15 years in prison or a fine of up to $25,000 or both.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, is the lead sponsor of HB4139, which "restricts the parental rights of child custody and visitation when the child was conceived as a result of a sexual assault or sexual abuse." Like the other two bills, this measure becomes effective on June 6 -- or 90 days after it was passed.
Both custody and visitation rights will be denied to a natural parent convicted of sexual assault when a child is produced as a result of that offense unless the victim or guardian consents and it is in the best interest of the child.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, formed a bipartisan Select Committee on Crimes Against Children during the interim period between the 2013 and 2014 regular legislative session, according to Delegate Guthrie.
"We called in State Police agencies and child advocacy networks because they're such an important part of dealing with child abuse and neglect," Guthrie told a reporter for the Beckley newspaper.
State Police said they often don't have the legal recourse to make sure parents are being held accountable. So committee members then worked to make sure the laws "have more teeth", Guthrie said.
A reporter for CNN -- John King -- created a political furor in West Virginia recently when he said 3rd District Congressman Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., was considering retiring at the end of his current term, Morgantown radio newsman Hoppy Kercheval reported last week.
But when Kercheval contacted Rahall's office, they told him that Rahall "has been committed to running for re-election from the moment he announced his candidacy." Spokeswoman Diane Luensmann said "nothing has changed in the interim."
The Republicans are excited about state Sen. Evan Jenkins, who has switched from the Democratic party to the Republican party and plans to challenge Rahall in this year's election.
West Virginia State Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas said in a news release that "it's clear he (Rahall) doesn't want or need to be there. These reports from CNN make clear the rumors we have heard for months."
The Rothenberg Political Report is the latest non-partisan political publication to move Rahall-Jenkins into the toss-up category. Deputy Editor Nathan Gonzales told Kercheval on his Metronews Talkline recently that the Rahall-Jenkins race is "going to be quite ugly."
The junior U. S. Senator from North Dakota -- a Democrat like current West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who hopes to win a seat in the U.S. Senate later this year -- will be in West Virginia this week to campaign for Tennant. Heidi Heitkamp won a close race over her Republican opponent in the 2012 election. A statement from Tennant's campaign claims Sen. Heitkamp and Tennant have a "lot in common -- both are tough, moderate Democrats in conservative, energy rich states."
But state Republicans countered with a statement that "those similarities are exactly why people shouldn't vote for Tennant." GOP leaders in the state claim Sen. Heitkamp has voted in favor of President Obama's policies 97 percent of the time, including for anti-coal policies. They say Heitkamp is "very supportive of Obamacare and made it easier for a Democratic-controlled Senate to confirm an Obama nominee. These are issues West Virginians need to be aware of."
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
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