Should Michigan Child Abuse Laws Change For Cases Involving Vulnerable Children?

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A recent Michigan case has resulted in people pushing for harsher punishments if the child abused is particularly vulnerable, like kids with autism.

When a person is convicted of abusing or neglecting a child in Michigan, there are rather specific sentencing ranges that Judges have to use when sentencing them to prison. First Degree Child Abuse can be punished by up to life in prison, but Fourth Degree Child Abuse is only a misdemeanor, and doesn’t get more than one year in county lock up. A recent case raised some interesting questions about sentencing and child abuse though. Should sentences should be harsher when the child being harmed is particularly vulnerable?

What were the details of the case in Lenawee County?

Erin Tiede and Sarah Phillips were both aides at Promedica Bixby Autism program in Adrian. However it came to light late last year that several of the children were being physically abused during one-on-one therapy sessions. Recordings of the sessions were viewed, and it was discovered that Tiede and Phillips had physically abused a total of four children at Promedica. However, because the children had autism and were non-verbal, they hadn’t been able to speak up or tell anyone about the ongoing abuse.

So what happened? And why could it affect the law in Michigan?

In the end, Tiede and Phillips both pleaded guilty to third degree child abuse, which is a felony under Michigan law. But because of Michigan’s sentencing guidelines, they didn’t end up serving much time behind bars at all, which family members of the abused children felt was wrong. Both women were sentenced to nine months in jail, and put on probation for three years following their release. If either violates probation, they would be sent back to jail. And further violations could land them in prison for up to two years. But people don’t think it was enough.

Why do people think these women should have spent more time behind bars?

“I understand the laws are inadequate for cases like this. They did the best they could.” says Michael Rosas, whose 5-year-old daughter Gabriella was one of the abuse victims. Jesse Reyes, Gabriella’s mother, shares that sentiment. “At least she’s doing some time,” Reyes says. “Maybe jail will give her second thoughts from doing this to another child.” But both believe that the law should have offered harsher punishments to people who abuse children who are particularly vulnerable. And they’re not the only ones.

There are proposed changes to Michigan laws in the works.

Lenawee County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Angie Borders said she wishes she could have done more, and points out that Michigan’s child abuse laws don’t adequately address situations where the children are nonverbal and cannot tell anyone what happened to them. As a result, she is now working with state Rep. Bronna Kahle to create an enhancement to Michigan’s child abuse laws for cases involving vulnerable children.

This could mean big changes in future for many Michiganians

Whether it’s parents, teachers, aides, medical staff, or caregivers, there are people all over Michigan who work with vulnerable children. Children who struggle with mental and physical illnesses, medical conditions, behavioral and emotional disorders, and other health problems. All of them could be considered “vulnerable” and all of the adults who work with them and care for them would need to watch their step even more closely if the laws changed. We plan to watch this possible legislation change closely, and let you know what developments show up on the radar in the future.