Janis proposes stiffer penalties for child endangerment

A Louisa County child abuse case sparked legislation proposed by Del. William R. Janis, R-Glen Allen, to increase penalties for anyone convicted of endangering a child.

The case involved Louisa residents Laura and Ronald Jewell, who were accused of torturing their 8-year-old granddaughter.

The prosecutor, Louisa Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Garrett Jr., said the girl sneaked out of her house on July 8, 2010 and ran to neighbor’s home for help. The neighbors, upon hearing a noise around 3 a.m., opened their door and found the girl, who was covered in bruises. She told the neighbors that she had been beaten and asked for help. The neighbors then proceeded to call 911.

The little girl was missing significant chunks of hair, Garrett said. She had open sores behind her ears and a small portion of one of her ears was missing. One of her ankles was broken and she had what looked like cigarette burns all over her body, he said.

The Jewell grandparents, with whom the girl was living, had made a “home-security system” to keep her in her room, Garrett said. They did so by tying a pan to her doorknob, which would make lots of noise when she would try and open the door.

Laura Jewell was convicted of malicious wounding and felony child abuse and neglect, and faces up to 30 years in prison when she is sentenced next month. Ronald Jewell pleaded guilty to felony child neglect and also faces substantial prison time.

The issue at hand, Garrett said, is that child torture statues are located in the child labor section of Virginia legislation. The judge presiding over the Jewell case stated that since the grandmother wasn’t the child’s employer, she couldn’t enact the penalties that come along with a child labor law infraction.

Janis said the problem is that the statutes pertained more to child labor laws as opposed to child abuse under criminal code. The acts that came out of those discussions were labor-related and not catered to children who were physically harmed by a parent, he said.

“We want to have as many teeth for physical abuse as we do for sexual abuse,” Garrett said.

Legislative changes would give prosecutors more ways to help victims and convict abusers. The bill Janis proposes, HB 1996, would make it a Class 3 felony with additional penalties for cases similar to the Jewell convictions. A related measure he submitted, HB 1995, would allow victims of child pornography to collect civil damages from offenders.

“There are three things we’re trying to do within these codes. Firstly, we want to move child torture and abuse from the child labor codes to the criminal code. Secondly, we want increased restitution for the victims of said abuse. And thirdly, we want more distinctions within the code regarding levels of offenses,” Garrett said. There is currently nothing within the code that addresses the varying atrocities of child abuse, torture and neglect, he said.

Garrett said he spoke with Janis early on in the Jewell case about the various issues within the code. Janis was eager to try to make improvements, he said.

With regard to this year’s legislative session, “I’m afraid because budget times are so tight,” Garrett said. More people in prison means more money spent.

This isn’t something a lot of lawmakers are going to want to hear, he said, “but if you’re breaking kids’ ankles, in my opinion, you deserve to be in jail.”

– Liz Monahan is a reporter for Capital News Service
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