Adults that stay silent when they suspect a child is being abused could face up to six months jail or a $2,000 fine under amendments to the Children Law.
Under a new mandatory reporting regime, debated by lawmakers Friday, a broad swath of professionals that work with children will have to make a report to authorities if they believe a child is being abused or neglected.
Doctors and other health professionals, teachers, police officers, ministers of religion, child care providers and public servants that work with children will all be required to report their concerns, as will probation officers, church workers, school employees and counsellors.
‘If people think they are right about keeping quiet about child abuse, they need to be told they are deeply, deeply wrong,’ Health Minister Anthony Eden told the house. ‘There is no room for tolerance of child abuse in a decent society.’
According to the law, abuse includes sexual, physical or emotional abuse of the child. The law considers it neglect if the child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, physical or psychological injury detrimental to his or her wellbeing, or if the child’s physical or physiological development is in jeopardy.
Anyone making a report under the law will be granted immunity from any civil or criminal liability, provided they have acted in good faith, Mr. Eden explained. They will also be shielded from any claim they have acted in breach of any code of professional etiquette or ethics.
Those making reports will do so confidentially and there is a general prohibition on the person’s name being revealed in court proceedings.
While lawmakers on both sides of the house welcomed the move, some complained that the penalties for staying silent about child abuse don’t go far enough.
Cayman Brac and Little Cayman MLA Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said it could cause some people to say ‘well, if I’m caught, what’s $2,000?’
‘It’s not a sufficient or reasonable penalty,’ she said.
Bodden Town MLA Osbourne Bodden agreed the penalties aren’t tough enough.
He said the law should cause people to say ‘if I don’t [report this] I am in really big trouble’, he said, suggesting that a $2,000 fine or six months jail term be a minimum penalty under the law.
Ms O’Connor-Connolly asked that consideration be given to extending the mandatory reporting regime to adults that look after children in sports clubs and other organisations.
Mr. Eden pledged to take on board the suggestions legislators made during Friday’s debate on the law, when further amendments are finalised this week. But he stopped short of saying whether he agrees with upping the penalties.
Other amendments to the law seek to crack down on bad parenting, giving courts the power to order parents to attend parenting classes.
It also demands that the parents of children appearing before courts be present throughout the child’s appearance.
Ms O’Connor-Connolly wondered whether forcing parents to sit through court proceedings could cause problems, particularly when it involves single parents.
Another amendment gives the Department of Children and Family Services the power to order that children undergo medical and psychiatric evaluation without the parent’s consent in emergency situations.
Taken as a whole, Mr. Eden said the long mooted amendments to the law will essentially give domestic force to rights laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
West Bay MLA Rolston Anglin predicted the law will benefit children and families in Cayman, but he warned it will not be a silver-bullet against child abuse.
‘People will continue to behave as they will behave,’ he said.
Some lawmakers debating the bill Friday spoke about abuse cases they have come across in the community and their revulsion at child abuse.
Mr. Bodden said that too often biological parents stay silent about partners or step-parents that abuse their children.
‘What torment,’ he said. ‘What must go through that child’s mind?’
George Town MLA Alfonso Wright picked up on the theme, relating the story of a woman that spoke at a child abuse prevention workshop he attended.
She was molested by her father and her mother stayed silent, he explained.
‘One night, while the father was in her bedroom, she could hear her mother’s footsteps coming down the hallway and thought; finally, she is coming to save me.’
Mr. Wright commented on the unspeakable abandonment the child felt as she heard the footsteps stop before they retreated away.
‘There is no other crime that hurts me more than the abuse of children,’ he said.
After the debate, lawmakers voted the bill through the important second reading stage. Further amendments are expected to be considered this week before a third and final vote.