LANSING, Mich. — Parents don’t always know just who is caring for or spending time with their children.
In 2013, Erica Hammell discovered her 1-year-old son, Wyatt, was being abused by her ex-husband’s girlfriend at the time. She had her suspicions about the woman but did not have access to concrete evidence until Wyatt was rushed to Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit with a massive brain hemorrhage.
Wyatt survived the abuse but was diagnosed with Shaken Baby Syndrome and continues to live with the effects of his treatment. It was after Wyatt received medical attention that Hammell discovered the woman, Rachel Edwards already had prior convictions for child abuse.
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“I believe strongly that parents have a right to know if someone who is living with their children or if someone’s taking care of their children that they’ve had a history of child abuse,” said State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) who created new legislation called Wyatt’s Law alongside his brother Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-18).
The law which passed the Michigan Senate in late April would create a database much like the sex offenders registry, maintained by the Michigan State Police. The database would log the information of people convicted of child abuse and make it more accessible to the community.
“What this bill does is it makes that information more readily accessible. We’re not asking for any information that isn’t already in the public record, but under current law can be very hard for parents to find,” Hertel Jr. said. “We’re trying to put all that in one place so that people have access to it and know that their kids are safe.
Rep. Kevin Hertel noted that Hammell's story is, unfortunately, not unique.
"Unfortunately these stories have been told many, many times across our state. We see them play out in the media frequently and so while it's important to me as a parent I think it is also important for all parents across our state," he said.
The database would include information like the person’s legal name and aliases, their date of birth, their municipality of residence, and a summary of their previous convictions.
“The information that is available is more limited than the sex offender registry, we’re not trying to put another restriction on people. We’re just trying to give parents knowledge,” Hertel Jr. said.
The new legislation was greeted by the Senate with bipartisan support and is headed to the House for further discussion.
“[Wyatt] is amazing because of the challenges that he’s overcome but he shouldn’t have had to overcome those challenges,” he said. “This won’t prevent all acts of child abuse but it certainly will help give parents some peace of mind.”
Despite the bill's good intentions Matt Gillard who serves as the president and CEO of Michigan's Children, an advocacy group in Lansing, says Wyatt's law doesn't accomplish the goals lawmakers want to reach.
"Registries are not prevention and have not proven to be preventative in any way shape or form. So we really try to encourage the legislature to really look at ways to prioritize preventing abuse and neglect," he said.
Gillard explained that legislator's attention to child abuse in Michigan is a good thing but said he wants to see politicians talk with advocacy groups.
"I think it's a great first start but I would encourage them to dig in deeper, to engage with organizations like ours and others out there who are involved in this issue on a regular basis," he said.
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