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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Renewed Call For Child Abuse Offender Registry Aired Before Committee

Jennifer and Octavio Diaz plead their case in front of Judge Fred Stine. FTM file. 
Jennifer Diaz was at work the day before Thanksgiving 2014 when she got a call that something was wrong with her little girl.

The young mother rushed home to find her four-month-old daughter, Sophie, with injuries to her head and face. The babysitter, Desiree Rankin, told Diaz that Sophie had been having seizures. But a criminal investigation would find another reason for Sophie’s injuries: child abuse.

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Rankin was charged in the case, took a plea deal and was sentenced to some time in jail after invoking an Alford guilty plea.

Diaz, determined to do what she can to prevent other cases of abuse, spends much of her time advocating for stricter child abuse laws.  She and Sophie, now a toddler, appeared together before a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary in Covington yesterday to once again ask lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow the names of convicted child abusers in Kentucky to be made available to the public through a state-maintained online child abuse offender registry.

“Sophie was very fortunate,” Diaz told the committee. “She survived. But I think it is so important to have a registry to protect our children.”

Sophie's injuries. Pictured provided by her mother. 

A bill to create the registry passed the Kentucky House last session but did not pass into law before session’s end. That legislation, sponsored by House Health and Family Services Chair Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, and Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, was House Bill 129, dubbed “Kylie Jo’s and Sophie’s Law” after both Sophie and Kylie Jo Sizemore, another little girl allegedly abused by her babysitter when she was only a few months old.

By passing legislation similar to HB 129 next year, Wuchner said Kentucky could become only the second state in the nation to create an online child abuse offender registry for convicted child abusers. The first state to create such a registry? Indiana, which went live with its child abuse offender registry this year.

“We are in the top 10” in child abuse and neglect cases, along with Indiana, Wuchner told the committee. Kentucky and Indiana have led the nation in child abuse and neglect over the years, she said, alternating between first and second place in sheer numbers of child abuse and neglect cases.

While the registry won’t be a cure-all for child abuse and neglect in the Commonwealth, Wuchner said it will help. It would join other child abuse prevention laws passed by the General Assembly in recent years including a law designed to prevent pediatric abusive head trauma (also known as “Shaken Baby Syndrome”) and HB 524 passed last session which clarifies, among other provisions, what constitutes serious physical injury of a child under age 12.

“We can’t make up for what happened to Sophie or other children,” said Wuchner. “But we can try to ensure that others do not have to go through what these parents and children have had to go through.”

How to structure child abuse offender registry legislation for consideration in 2018 drew comments from some committee members. Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said he’s like to know how long names would remain on the registry, among other things.

Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, said she hopes the bill stresses the importance of knowing the background of potential hires. Current law requires that specific child care workers, including those in day care and foster care, undergo a state background check before being hired to determine if there are any substantiated abuse or neglect cases against them.

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