Caylee's Law a bad idea for a good cause

It's not hard to understand the push for Caylee's Law — no matter how misguided.

In the wake of the Casey Anthony trial-gone-viral, this proposed legislation would punish a parent for not reporting a missing child. And even those of us uncomfortable with the teeth-baring, Nancy Grace-fueled vitriol over Anthony's acquittal get this post-trial push.

A 2-year-old girl is dead, and a mother who did not report her missing for 31 days was found not guilty of her murder.

Who wouldn't want some new law to change this feeling of injustice done?

And so a knee-jerk response ripples across the country, with multiple states considering a version of Caylee's Law for parents or guardians. At least eight such bills have been filed here in Florida, where Anthony was tried by a jury that had to be imported to Orlando from Pinellas County because the case was that incendiary.

The jury heard a trial long on what-might-have-happeneds but short on solid evidence. Jurors did their job with what they had and were promptly and viciously excoriated for it.

And so it goes in post-O.J. America.

Florida versions of this bill named for the little girl who died would make it worth up to five years in prison for a parent not to report a missing child within 12 or 48 hours. Like other legislation named for victims — like Jessica's Law, aimed at sex offenders after the horror that was John Couey — it's our attempt to make sure this does not happen again.

As a practical matter, Caylee's Law won't likely accomplish that.

Prosecutors around the state with decades of experience will tell you they cannot recall a case like this one. So how likely is it that this strange and specific set of facts about how a mother acted after her daughter vanished — or how she didn't act — would repeat itself?

In truth, most missing kids are reported. And not doing so — particularly with a child this young and dependent — could already fall under the existing statute on child neglect.

There's also the possibility this law could get complicated in cases in which custody is shared between warring parents, with parental abductions or when a teenager is a chronic runaway.

This week, a special Senate panel created after the verdict and called the Select Committee on Protecting Florida's Children met to start figuring out if existing laws are adequate or new penalties are needed. Right off the bat, legislators were talking about acting on need, not on emotion. That's a good sign.

Still, don't be surprised to see a version of Caylee's Law come next session, if politicians are too busy worrying about persistent public anger over the verdict, if they're more concerned with making sure their names are on high-profile legislation.

If we want a legacy for Caylee and for children in peril, maybe the state could ease up on teachers, who are often the link to help. Maybe we could fund and protect the school programs, abuse investigators and child advocates who are hope for those kids.

None of which will help how people feel about a little girl who died, and ultimately no one held responsible.

But an empty law, even one sweetly named, can't change that.

Caylee's Law a bad idea for a good cause 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 7:23am]

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