Bills will aid young witnesses

As the fourth week of the 81st West Virginia Legislative Session comes to a close, I can hardly believe that my fifth session as a state legislator is well underway. As I walk down the marble hall to my office in the East Wing of our grand Capitol building each morning, I can recall my first trip to our capital city. It was then, as a sixth-grade student on a Jefferson County Schools field trip that I first became familiar with our glorious Capitol building and first felt a sense of pride under its gold dome. It was at that time, as a young student, that I began to feel passionate about this unique process and all legislation that impacts our state’s youth. Today, that sense of pride still runs deep as I make challenging decisions for the residents of Jefferson County each hour through the legislative process.

This year, through several bills, I have been able to address issues that if passed into law will specifically impact our children for the better. As a member of both the House Education and House Health and Human Resources Committees, I often review these types of measures. Namely, this past week, the House Judiciary Committee passed two bills of which I am a co-sponsor. HB 2460 creates a new offense for child neglect by a parent, guardian or custodian which creates a substantial risk of bodily injury, to provide penalties upon conviction. Punishment may include fines and ordered parenting classes. Additionally, HB 2314 authorizes a family court judge to order a child to be taken into custody in emergency situations. This would occur only when there exists an imminent danger to the physical well-being of the child and no other options exist. HB 2460 will now head to the Finance Committee, while HB 2314 will head to the floor of the full House for a vote of passage to the Senate.

Also, I’m proud to have worked with the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network and Children’s Justice Task Force to draft and sponsor a bill that we have coined the “Child Witness Protection Act.” It is well settled that interactions with our justice system may be trauma-inducing events for child victims.

The cause of trauma for a child is associated with not understanding the court process, having to describe embarrassing or shameful activities in the presence of strangers, being questioned and facing a defendant in the courtroom. While children are distressed, as we know, their testimony is less accurate. Consequently, there are a number of constitutionally permissible steps that may be taken to diminish trauma children experience because of testifying.

This bill adds provisions to three sections of state Code in which a child might be called as a witness. The provisions will standardize actions that may be taken by the court to enhance protections for child witnesses and therefore safeguard the accuracy of his/her testimony.

The provisions include setting the time of the testimony to accommodate the child’s school/activity schedule, allowing the child to take an item of comfort like a toy or blanket, permitting the presence of a support person for the child, adjusting the layout of the courtroom or hearing room, conducting proceedings outside the normal courtroom, permitting the use of a witness screen, use of age- and developmentally appropriate language and limiting release of sensitive information to ensure child safety and confidentiality. The provisions also outline the usage of closed-circuit television for child statements when necessary.

Children will remain my main focus this session as I progress to work with many groups, including the Our Children, Our Future Campaign to address childhood poverty. It was wonderful having so many people from the Eastern Panhandle join me for Kids & Families Day last Tuesday. Additionally, with major reforms needed for our state’s education system, I look forward to the evolving debate surrounding many educational issues for the good of all of our students in West Virginia.

As always, if I may be of assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

 

— Tiffany Lawrence represents the 65th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates

 

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