Sanpete officials take lead on ‘Miley’s Bill’ to create child abuse registry
With help from Sanpete County supporters, a bill to implement a registry system for felony child abusers passed in the House and Senate during the 2017 Utah Legislature and is now waiting for the governor’s approval.
Miley’s Bill, or HB149, sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, will add a child abuse registry to the existing sex offender registry website.
The child abuse registry will be similar to the sex offender registry, Owens said. Any person convicted of felony child abuse will be required to register. The person’s name will stay on the registry for 10 years or for life, depending on the seriousness of their offense.
Joann Otten, grandmother to the child the bill was named for, said the registry will enable the public to find out if someone dangerous has or could come into contact with their children.
Single mothers looking into new boyfriends or parents looking for babysitters could use the registry to their benefit, Otten said.
Otten said she came up with the idea for a registry when she heard about a similar bill that was about to pass in Indiana.
“I was a new representative when JoAnn originally approached me,” Owens said. “I was touched by her story but didn’t have enough experience yet to know what to do to make it happen.”
After Indiana’s child abuse registry passed in July 2016, Owens began looking into how the Indiana law worked. He and Otten talked about moving forward with a similar proposal. They announced Miley’s Bill with a balloon release party in October 2016.
Although some things went smoothly, the bill generated fair share of opposition. “The were some special interest groups that had different ideas than us,” Owens said. “It was disheartening to hear they were against the bill at a meeting JoAnn and I attended.”
During Owens’ and Otten’s push to get the bill through the Legislature, a woman came forward and said she had been abused as a child but didn’t want her father to show up on the registry.
“That was a hard pill to swallow, but we pushed forward,” Owens said.
The opposition held up the bill in an initial committee. At that point, Owens and Otten turned to Sanpete County Sheriff Brian Nielson and Gunnison Valley Police Chief Brett McCall.
As members of the Utah Law Enforcement Legislative Committee (ULELC), Nielson and McCall helped fine-tune the language of the bill, making it more palatable to the opposition, as well as marshal law-enforcement support for the measure.
“When the bill was held up in an initial committee, they really helped us put some legs underneath it,” Owens said.
McCall and Nielson have a lot of history dealing with child abuse. Three weeks after McCall was hired as Centerfield City Police Chief, the two worked together on a child abuse homicide case.
“This is something we believe in,” Nielson said. “We want to speak for those victims who can’t speak for themselves.”
Owens said he took the bill back to the committee, where it passed. The proposal then went to the House floor where it passed 75-0.
But he didn’t get the same kind of support in the Senate. “When we hit the Senate committee, we started getting some friction,” Owens said.
Owens and Otten both say Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, was key in garnering the support needed to pass the bill in the Senate. The bill needed 15 votes to get out of committee. In the end, it passed 15-12, Owens said. Subsequently, it passed on the Senate floor.
“Representative Owens had the key parts of the bill nailed down,” Nielson said. “There just needed to be some help explaining things to build support.”
One of the key points of friction, Owens said, was whether people already convicted of child abuse should be added to the child abuse registry retroactively. Some committee members felt it would put a burden on law enforcement to go back years and identify child abusers to be added to the registry.
“The question was, how far do we go back,” McCall said. “We had to address that to get the bill where it needed to be.”
Eventually, Nielsen said, they settled on the registry listing only new convictions along with people on probation or parole who have prior felony child abuse convictions.
Another topic of debate was how long an offender would stay on the registry. Nielson said they settled on a life term for first-degree felony child abusers, and a 10-year term for second or third-degree felony abusers, provided the second-degree and third-degree offenders do not offend again during the 10 years.
According to McCall, the well-established sex offender registry paved the way for a child-abusers registry.
“It’s taken some time for the sex offender registry to get where it needed to be,” McCall said. “It’s a pretty well-oiled machine right now, and that’s what we’re are looking to have happen with the child abuse registry. We kind of have a road map to follow because the sex offender registry came first.”
Nielson said people don’t have to worry about getting on the registry for minor disciplinary actions, such as spanking.
“This is aimed squarely at felony abusers,” Nielson said. He explained that when an act or omission by any person negligently, recklessly, intentionally or knowingly injures a child, then that person can be charged with felony child abuse.
Owens said the bill has a “favorable” chance of being signed by the governor.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Owens said. “I am a school counselor by trade. Children are near and dear to my heart. There is no excuse for child abuse at any level.”
Otten said she is glad the bill has come this far, if nothing else, to increase awareness and prevention. She hopes one day every state in the nation will have a similar registry.