DOVER, Del. (AP) — The state House on Thursday approved a bill aimed at strengthening prosecution of child-abuse cases in Delaware, despite concerns by some lawmakers that it could affect the ability of parents to discipline their children.
The bill was approved on a 34-to-7 vote after winning unanimous approval in the Senate last week. It now goes to Gov. Jack Markell’s desk.
In broadening the language in existing law, the bill would create the new felony of second-degree child abuse. Second-degree abuse would include intentionally or recklessly causing physical injury to a child who is 3 years old or younger or who has significant intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Because the bill defines physical injury to a child as “any impairment of physical condition or pain,” some critics fear that parents could be prosecuted simply for spanking their young children.
“There’s a fine line between discipline and child abuse, and that’s our dilemma,” said Rep. Earl Jacques, D-Newark.
But bill supporters said the measure was not aimed at outlawing spanking.
“This bill does not limit a parent’s right to use reasonable and appropriate discipline on their children in any respect,” said deputy attorney general Patricia Dailey Lewis, head of the Family Division in the state Department of Justice. “That right remains intact.”
However, some lawmakers noted that the determination of what’s reasonable and appropriate would be left to the attorney general’s office.
“What may be reasonable to me may not necessarily be reasonable to someone else,” said Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Newark, who also voted against the bill.
Dailey Lewis acknowledged that the Justice Department would retain the discretion to work with police and interview parents but suggested that parents exercising appropriate discipline have little to fear.
“I believe that people understand in their heart the difference between abuse and discipline,” she said, adding that representatives of the attorney general’s office would be willing to attend community meetings to discuss the bill with lawmakers’ constituents.
Officials have said the bill would help prosecutors win convictions in cases involving babies, toddlers and disabled children who are abused but unable to speak or describe what happened to them. Dailey Lewis said many cases involving such victims are lost in court or result only in low-level misdemeanor convictions because prosecutors are unable to prove physical impairment or “substantial” pain to the victim under the existing law.