Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Child abuse bill closer to becoming law in Wisconsin

School workers would have to report crimes

Written by Jim Collar

Advocates say a bill passed by the state Assembly last week expanding the list of those required to report child abuse will help prevent cases such as the one against a former Appleton teacher charged with abusing disabled students.

The bill, which passed the state Senate by a 31-1 vote in May, would require all school employees to report suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement or child welfare officials. The mandatory reporting law currently extends only to teachers, school administrators and counselors.

The bill moved through the Legislature as a felony case against former Janet Berry Elementary School teacher Mary C. Berglund progressed through Calumet County Court. The measure passed the Assembly on a voice vote Thursday and now requires Gov. Scott Walker's signature to become law.

Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, referenced Berglund's case last week in a letter to Assembly members seeking support of the measure. He said the bill is a positive step to better protect children.

"One would hope that those who might abuse kids in school realize now that everybody in the building is a mandated reporter," Spitzer-Resnick said Monday. "If (abuse) happens, we're more likely to get reports and stop it faster."

Calumet County Dist. Atty. Jerilyn Dietz couldn't be reached for comment.

Berglund, 54, was charged in March with nine felony child abuse counts and one felony count of strangulation stemming from classroom incidents involving cognitively disabled children that occurred from 2009 into January.

Berglund's charges stem from documentation provided by a teacher's assistant relating to five students. On Jan. 6, the assistant said Berglund lay across a 9-year-old child, grabbed his throat and pushed his head back. In other incidents, police say Berglund grabbed children by their heads and necks and forced them to put their heads down during "time-out" punishments, the criminal complaint stated.

In the wake of the allegations involving Berglund, the Appleton Area School District changed its policy to meet the bill's goal by requiring all of its employees to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

The school board last month also created an ombudsman role to assist employees or serve as an alternative source for staff if they are uncomfortable telling their building principal.

Although Berglund's case was cited in support of the mandatory reporting bill, another 2011 case inspired it. In Racine, former teacher's aide Lewis Givens is charged with four counts of sexual assault in connection to incidents involving a 9-year-old girl on Dec. 21, 2010, and Jan. 6 and Jan. 10 of this year, the criminal complaint says.

In that case, a substitute teacher, an educational assistant and another staff member told police of witnessing incidents of inappropriate touching. Police, however, weren't contacted until Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, Berglund's case is on hiatus as attorneys wait for the appointment of a judge.

Judge Donald Poppy initially presided over the case. Attorneys planned to resolve the case by plea agreement in August, but Poppy — serving as a reserve judge — declined to accept the deal out of concern that a substantial reduction in charges wouldn't meet the public interest.

When Poppy retired, the case was assigned to Jeffrey Froehlich, who was appointed to Calumet County's judicial seat. It went to Fond du Lac Judge Peter Grimm based on a conflict of interest involving Froehlich, who was previously Calumet County's assistant district attorney.

Last month, a request was made for judicial substitution.

Source http://www.postcrescent.com/article/20111108/APC0101/111080410/Child-abuse-bill-closer-to-becoming-law-in-Wisconsin?odyssey=tab%7Cmostpopular%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE

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