Criminal Law

Caylee's Law Fills a Gap in Missing Children Laws

Whether you have children or not, you'd think any parent whose child goes missing would call the authorities immediately for help finding the child as soon as possible, and hopefully safe and sound.

It doesn't always happen that way, though. And while most people would be astonished and wonder, "Why didn't the parent file a missing child report," the law has little to say on the matter. States across the US may change that, and soon.

Caylee's Law

Two-year-old Caylee Anthony's body was found in a wooded area, not far from her home, about six months after she was last seen alive at her home. Her mother, Casey, never reported Caylee as missing; Caylee's grandmother filed a report 31 days after she "disappeared." Ultimately, Casey was charged with murdering Caylee.

A jury found her not guilty, and Casey was sentenced, mostly to time served while awaiting trial, on her convictions for lying to police during the investigation of Caylee's whereabouts. Casey's sentence, in reality, was only a few days in jail.

The Public & Lawmakers React

Overall, the general public's reaction was outrage - even though there were some who believed in Casey all along. Across the US, from Alabama to New Jersey to Florida to Kentucky, state lawmakers almost immediately started wok on various versions of "Caylee's Law."

While there are slight variations from state to state, each law makes it a felony for parents or legal guardians not to report missing children (usually those under 12 or 13 years old) within a short period of time, usually 12 or 24 hours. Most laws also make it a felony for parents or guardians not to report a child's death or the location of a child's corpse within hours of the child's death.

As a felony, parents who violate a Caylee's Law generally face one to five years in prison, fines of up to $10,000 or both.

There's a citizens' movement pushing for a federal Caylee's Law, as well.

Why Is Such a Law Needed?

You may be surprised to find out that, as a general rule, there's no legal requirement for parents or legal guardians to report their children as missing. Most states, like Texas, require child or day care facilities to report missing children - usually within hours, and with notification to a state agency, parents and police.

Failure to do so may mean license suspension and perhaps other civil or criminal penalties.

Also, New Jersey (PDF) and many other states require schools to report missing children to parents and law enforcement within hours of the child's absence being noticed. These laws compliment others requiring healthcare providers, social workers and others to report signs of child abuse and neglect to authorities.

Goals of Caylee's Law

There are two main purposes of Caylee's Laws.

Parents Must Be Parents

One goal, of course, is to make sure parents live up to their parental responsibilities. Sometimes, parents don't to report their children as missing because they're embarrassed, or they're afraid of being charged with child neglect or some similar crime. The penalties of violating Caylee's Law should prompt parents to put their children first.

Some Punishment Is Needed

Usually, when children go missing and no report is made, the police know something's wrong and the parents or other responsible adults are held accountable. What happens in the rare case where a child isn't reported by a parent as missing, the child is later found dead, the evidence of what caused the death is destroyed by the delay and the parent walks away scot-free?

Florida's version of Caylee's Law would make the parent a felon, and the parent would face serious jail time and probably a stiff fine. So Casey, who was tried in Florida, would have faced more than a few extra days in jail because she didn't report Casey as missing.

Critics say Caylee's Law isn't needed because child abuse and neglect laws already cover situations like Casey and Caylee's. That doesn't seem to be the case in Florida - Casey hasn't been charged with child abuse or neglect. In any event, it's hard to argue that there can be too many criminal laws designed to protect our children.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can I get my state lawmakers to work on Caylee's Law?
  • Can parents sue schools for personal injury or wrongful death if the schools don't report or notice a child-student is missing?
  • My ex-spouse left the state with our children and I can't contact them. Should I file missing children reports?
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