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WV Legislature's women's caucus to study crimes against children

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Abuse, molestation and negligence are just some of the crimes that West Virginia children face all too often.

But a legislative subcommittee, comprised entirely of women, is working to change some laws to better protect children.

The Select Committee on Crimes Against Children is a bipartisan, bicameral subcommittee that formed during the July interim meeting period. The 21 female members of the House of Delegates already meet consistently and discuss issues pertaining to children, so Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said forming the subcommittee was the next natural step.

"All 21 women serving in the House got together often during the regular session and decided that issues and laws addressing crimes against children urgently needed further attention," Miley said. "I am very pleased to encourage this hard working, bipartisan group to continue its efforts during the interim process."

Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, said women members of the House met weekly during the regular session to talk about a wide variety of issues facing women and children and possible legislation to solve some of those issues. The group took a filed trip to CAMC's Women's and Children's Hospital to see first-hand the affects of prescription drug abuse on expectant mothers and their newborns.

"We have examined many issues, but determined that our immediate focus should be on child abuse and neglect and other crimes against children," said Phillips, who co-chairs the committee. "So the Women's Caucus introduced House Resolution 33, which called for this special study and was adopted by the House."

Phillips has seen for herself the effects abuse and neglect can have on children. As a school counselor, Phillips said she encountered children at her school she suspects were victims of abuse, but was told the child protection laws were not strong enough to allow her to intervene.

"I believe both our state laws and our Crimes Against Children Unit could be strengthened," she said.

Other members of the committee say they are concerned about sexual crimes committed against children. Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she is shocked by the number of child pornography cases.

"Although our State Police deserve praise for a 100 percent conviction rate, we need to ensure they have greater resources to protect our children form becoming victims of these modern-day, horrifying crimes," she said.

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, said she is concerned about gaps in the legal definition of child abuse and neglect, a lack of experienced officers and the need to make the state sex offender registry and Internet Crimes Against Children Unit more effective — issues a law enforcement officer discussed earlier this year in his testimony to the caucus.

"It was a very productive discussion that we need to continue," Rowan said. "We realized there was more work to be done to determine what we need to do through legislation to address this problem. I see a lot more work ahead for us."

Crittenton Services is a behavioral health agency that serves more than 650 young women, children and families in all 55 counties. Kathy Szafran, president and CEO of Crittenton, said she is pleased to see the Legislature take steps to cut down on abuse, neglect and other crimes against women and children.

"The rising rate of child abuse and neglect in our state is alarming," Szafran said. "And the frighteningly high number of sexual abuse and assault cases among children is heart-wrenching.

"We serve these children and see first-hand the long-lasting emotional scars abuse creates. These are issues that cannot wait. Our children can't wait."

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, received the 2012 West Virginia Child Care Association's Champion of Children Award. She said she's looking forward to working with other women lawmakers to help women and children across the state.

"Hopefully, the children of the state of West Virginia will be better served by the Legislature's year-round attention to issues that concern mothers and families," Storch said. "I personally have leaned a lot in the women's caucus and welcome the opportunity to participate in this bipartisan process during the interim time period."

Other members of the caucus are: Delegates Karen Arvon, R-Raleigh; Anna Border, R-Wood; Denise Campbell, D-Randolph; Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia; Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha; Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson; Linda Longstreth, D-Marion; Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia; Carol Miller, R-Cabell; Amanda Padson, R-Monongalia; Mary Poling, D-Barbour; Meshea Poore, D-Kanawaha; Suzette Raines, R-Kanawha; Peggy Smith, D-Lewis; Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell; Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette; and Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh.

Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, is the only female member of the West Virginia State Senate. She agreed to serve as a non-voting member of the committee.