New Florida laws vital in fight against domestic violence, child sex abuse

The Manatee and Sarasota county proponents of new legal weapons to combat domestic violence deserve the community's applause. Gov. Rick Scott signed their legislation into law last week.

On the same day, the governor also signed a bill that puts Florida in the national spotlight with the toughest mandatory reporting rules for child sex abuse that occurs on school and university campuses.

Both new laws will help break the culture of silence surrounding both crimes. The reluctance by victims and witnesses to report these heinous atrocities will be overcome to a certain degree.

While neither law is a panacea, they put abusers on notice of the state's intent to pursue additional legal avenues to arrest, conviction and incarceration.

The new domestic and sexual violence law, championed by local prosecutors, counselors and lawmakers, allows "hearsay" statements admissible in court cases.

All too often, battered spouses and intimate partners crumble under intimidation or cling to the sentiment that their abusers will change their behavior, whether that be physical assaults, emotional abuse, controlling domination or other forms of maltreatment.

Those victims will refuse to testify, skip court appearances and otherwise frustrate the prosecution of their tormentors.

Now, though, the victim's admissions to health care professionals, law enforcement officers and social workers will be admissible in court if prosecutors can demonstrate the defendant blocked the accuser from testifying in person through duress, threats or other intimidation.

While this law follows others states in allowing judges to use their discretion to allow such hearsay testimony, Florida's new law on reporting child sex abuse is the toughest in the nation.

Anyone who "willfully and knowingly" fails to alert authorities to suspicions of child sexual abuse on any school or university campus could face criminal prosecution and fines up to $1 million per episode. Current state law only requires parents and other caregivers to report child sex abuse.

Failure to comply with the reporting requirement is now a third-degree felony instead of a misdemeanor, with prison terms ranging from one to 15 years.

This comes in the wake of the scandal at Penn State University in which a witness to child sex abuse did not come forward and report the alleged perpetrator, Jerry Sandusky.

The law also allocates $2 million to spread public awareness about the sex abuse hotline at the Florida Department of Children and Families, increases the number of hotline counselors by 47, and requires hotline operators to report abuse calls to law enforcement.

Notably, the state set aside $1.5 million to help battered women relocate and begin rebuilding their lives, a valuable lifeline.

Kudos to state Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton and Rep. Doug Holder of Sarasota for sponsoring the domestic violence legislation and to all of the local prosecutors, counselors and others who worked to assure passage of these significant new tools to reverse the low prosecution rate of abusers.