Tracking child abuse

HANCOCK COUNTY — A public registry would track offenders convicted of child abuse or neglect under a proposed law being considered by Indiana lawmakers.

The bill, known as “Kirk’s Law,” was inspired by the death of 19-month-old Kirk Coleman of Elkhart County, who died of a brain injury in October 2014 while in the care of a babysitter who had a history of child abuse. The woman is awaiting trial on a charge of felony battery resulting in death.

His family has said had they known the babysitter’s criminal history — she was convicted of child neglect in 2006 — they wouldn’t have left the toddler in her care.

The legislation, which would create a registry similar to the online sex-offender registry, passed the Indiana Senate on a 49-0 vote earlier this month. It must pass the House and be signed by the governor before it can become law.

Local officials applaud the legislation, saying any tool parents can use to keep their children safe is an initiative they support, especially as the number of child abuse cases in Hancock County increases. In 2015, the Department of Child Services handled 93 court cases in which a child had been neglected or abused, compared with 65 cases in 2014, according to James Wide, spokesman for the Department of Child Services.

Lawmakers said the registry will be useful to parents looking for child care; if parents know a potential babysitter has been convicted of a child abuse-related crime, they will be less likely to leave the child with that person.

In 2015, Hancock County prosecutors filed 28 cases, half of which remain active, against people accused of crimes that would qualify to be listed on the registry if the defendants were convicted, said Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton.

The crimes that qualify for the registry are neglect of a dependent, child selling, sex offenses committed against children and battery on a child.

The legislation would act as a secondary means for law enforcement to track offenders, even if their convictions don’t land them on the sex-offender registry.

For example, in early 2015, a Hancock County woman accepted a plea agreement in which prosecutors dropped child molest charges in exchange for her testimony against two other defendants.

The woman pleaded guilty to battery on a child and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, neither of which required her to register as a sex offender.

Had Senate Bill 357 been in effect then, her name would have been listed on the child abuse registry.

The prosecutor’s office supports the legislation because it’s proactive, Eaton said. It will help parents make informed choices about who should care for their children.

“Anything that will reduce the risk of neglect or death is something we’re in favor of,” he said. “The best case is the one we don’t get because it never happened.”

The Indiana State Police would maintain the registry, which would be accessible to the public and updated at least once every 30 days. The registry would list the name of the convict, their age, last known city of residence, a photograph and a description of the crime for which they were convicted.

The bill is being considered by a House committee, which must give the measure the nod for it to be considered by the full House.

Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, said if the bill advances to the full House for a vote, he’ll support it. It’s an important piece of legislation that can help prevent tragedies, he said.

Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, voted in favor of the bill when it was in the Senate.

As of now, the bill doesn’t include a funding mechanism for the registry, which has been estimated to cost about $300,000 to implement and will need additional funding every year to maintain. Cherry said if the bill passes, he expects it likely won’t be implemented until 2017. Because the state budget is figured every two years, lawmakers aren’t as likely to approve legislation this year that requires new funding sources, Cherry said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.