Senators hear testimony from Deputy AG on child abuse bill in Samoa

Apia (Samoa news) : Senators were pleased with what they called a clear explanation from Deputy Attorney General Mitzie Jessop regarding an administration bill which further criminalizes the act of child abuse, but does not take away a parent's right to discipline their children, as long as such discipline doesn't turn into the abuse of a child.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill in second reading yesterday with the third and final reading expected today.

Jessop, who heads the criminal division of the Attorney General’s Office, was testifying yesterday along with Fono legal counsel Nathaniel Savali before the Senate Judicial Committee on the administration bill, which also creates local law on child neglect.

Two weeks ago, when the committee reviewed the measure, some senators were concerned the law would take away a parent’s right to discipline their children, and during yesterday’s hearing, committee chairman Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono asked Jessop for her comments regarding the senators’ concerns.

On the issue, Jessop said, “This is how we [Samoans] teach our children right and wrong, and it’s important, it’s part of our culture.”

She then pointed out the bill does not prevent a parent from disciplining their children, noting the bill targets cases — such as those that have reached the AG’s office — where parents have abused their children, by tying their children up and beating them with a 2x4 piece of lumber.

This type of action is “more than just disciplining our children and that is what this bill seeks to stop – that type of behavior,” the deputy AG said. “We also have situation where not only children are tied up and beaten by their parents, but they (children) are not fed, or given water.”

She explained, “These are the types of cases that comes to my office, but I don’t have the tools that I need in order to prosecute those parents… for child abuse,” and noted the bill would amend current law by changing the agency which will deal with victims of child abuse.

Current law has the Department of Health named as the responsible agency, but the new bill gives that responsibility to the Department of Human and Social Services (DHSS).

Jessop says DHSS has the proper resources to deal with victims of these types of cases.

“There are other laws that I can charge parents with, but they (the laws) don’t reflect exactly what is happening” when it comes to actual child abuse, she said.

“And then it’s difficult for me, when I go to court, because I don’t have the resources that I need in order to help these parents to become better parents so that they understand that this type of behavior is unacceptable,” the deputy AG said and urged senators to “please” pass this bill.

Committee chairman Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono said the explanation by Jessop has addressed concerns by senators when it comes to Samoans disciplining their children. He asked if the AG’s office sought any recommendation from the court for this bill.

Jessop responded “yes” adding that a draft of the bill was sent to District Court Judge John Ward, who is pleased with the language included in the amendments.

Sen. Faumuina wanted to know if there is any provision in current law or amendments to be made in the bill that allows parents to attend anger management counseling if such cases surface for the first time, instead of the parent being charged outright.

He says such a provision gives parents a second chance to really think about the consequences of their actions and take into consideration doing the right thing.

Jessop said yes, there are existing laws with provisions assisting parents. For example, there is an option to “defer prosecution” in which the parent is not charged under the law, but is placed under supervision, to take anger management classes and parental classes in order to help the parent understand that there are better ways to discipline a child instead of abusing the child.

“So there are other laws that are in place... to help parents” such as providing counseling for them, she said and emphasized that this bill deals with the “most serious cases” involving child abuse.

“And upon completion of the supervision, then the record of the parent is wiped clean. We do use that law quite often when cases come to my office,” she added.

Local law (ASCA 45.2015) states that the Attorney General, upon recommendation of the agency, may refer a person accused or suspected of child abuse or neglect to a nonjudicial source of treatment or assistance upon conditions set forth by the agency and the Attorney General.

(Currently the “agency” referred to in the law is the Department of Health).

If a person is so diverted from the criminal justice system, the Attorney General shall not file charges in connection with the case if the person participates to the satisfaction of the agency and the attorney general in the diversion program offered, the law states.

It also says that the “initial diversion shall be for a period not to exceed two years. This diversion period may be extended for one additional 1-year period by the Attorney General if necessary. Decisions regarding extending diversion time periods shall be made following review of the person diverted by the Attorney General and the agency.”

“Participation by a person accused or suspected of child abuse in any diversion program is voluntary,” it says.

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