Caylee’s Law Won’t Stop Child Abuse and Neglect

Until we fix the fundamentals of reporting and prosecution, parents will still get away with killing their children

In a perfect world we wouldn’t need a Caylee’s Law, but we do. Or at least we did. The law, inspired by an online petition, has been introduced in one form or another in almost 30 states including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It makes it a felony for a parent or guardian to fail to notify police within 24 hours after discovering a child is missing.

Casey Anthony was shown in court documents partying during the 31 days her 2-year-old daughter was missing. When Caylee’s remains were found in a forest wrapped in a plastic bag, too much time had gone by to collect DNA evidence. Casey Anthony was found not guilty of all felony counts including abuse.

The new state laws are fueled by the emotions of the case. There are constitutional questions about the law and concerns about misuse; but softened and worded carefully, the law is a good idea and seems inevitable.

But the law is inspired by the emotional false hope of retroactivity. There is a strong belief that Casey Anthony got away with murder, and this law would have given prosecutors and the jury another count to put the mother in prison for years. But what is done is done and the law only underscores the problems with laws enacted after the fact. They are often case-specific and thus ineffective in dealing with a much bigger problem. Mothers, fathers and guardians are cleared or woefully under-sentenced in the death of a child everyday in this country.

In a perfect world an estimated 2,500 children wouldn’t die from neglect and child abuse in this country every year, but they do. And it will continue unless we do something about it.

Cindy Christian, a child abuse expert from Philadelphia’s Children Hospital, told me, “If you are going to kill anyone, kill your own child because chances are you’ll go free.” Those words were haunting. They were meant to be. Christian testifies as an expert witness in child abuse and neglect cases across the area and is frustrated at the inability of the justice system to convict the worst kind of killers—the kind who kill their own child.

One of the biggest problems is the under-reporting of child abuse and neglect until it’s too late. Two years ago in Indiana, 13-year-old Christian Choate died after years of child abuse. After his death, police found a note he had written wondering when someone would check in on him and give him food and water. The boy’s father and step-mother are charged with murder. But court records show that at least a dozen people knew or suspected child abuse and failed to report it.

A “Christian’s Law” requiring that suspected child abuse be reported may be a stronger law-enforcement tool to help prevent the death and maltreatment of children.

It would also help if all suspected abuse and neglect deaths are recorded properly. A recent analysis of child deaths in 15 states by the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child deaths shows that there were twice as many neglected deaths in those states than reported to the federal database. In most states, the only neglect cases that get reported are the ones that were already the focus of a child welfare investigation. Under that criterion, Caylee and Christian would not make the national database.

There are so many problems with the reporting, prosecution and recording of child abuse deaths that there is a real fear the passing of “Caylee’s Law” may give the public the false sense that the problem has been solved. When in reality, it would do nothing to prevent the seven children who die every day in this country from abuse and neglect.

If legislators really want to do something positive, they should call Cindy Christian at Children’s Hospital and ask her what laws we need to protect children like Caylee Anthony and Christian Choate, before the worst happens.

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post every Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to