TALLAHASSEE -- Marie Ruhl can't erase the abuse she says her son received at a Venice day-care center two years ago, but that hasn't stopped her from trying to protect other children from similar situations.
For the past year, Ruhl and a group of Sun Coast parents have been calling and writing state legislators, asking them to strengthen Florida's child abuse law.
Their efforts appear to be paying off: A bill that would make it a third-degree felony for a parent or caregiver to use excessively harsh corporal punishment on a child is likely to go to the Florida House for a vote next week.
If the bill is successful, it would be a major victory for local parents in the group "A Voice for Our Children," who were outraged when the state attorney failed to file criminal charges last May against teachers at the Venice Presbyterian Church's Early Childhood Center, despite evidence of child abuse that appeared convincing.
"I look forward to saying to my son, 'I'm really sorry this happened to you, and this is what I did to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else,'" Ruhl said.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Sen. Nan Rich, R-Sunrise, would expand the state's criminal child abuse law to include "inappropriate or excessively harsh discipline" that results in sprains, broken bones, burns, cuts, bruises, welts and other injuries.
As the law is written now, prosecutors and courts have faced difficulties delineating between acceptable corporal punishment, such as spanking, and criminal child abuse.
In the Venice case, for example, police recommended 29 charges against several staff members at the Early Childhood Center, saying they had pulled children's hair, thrown them against walls and violently slammed them onto the ground.
However, prosecutors said the physical discipline didn't meet the state's threshold for criminal child abuse. Officials at the Venice Presbyterian Church school, now called Preschool in the Pines, declined to comment on the case.
"Obviously, the laws in place failed to protect 77 children at this center," said Lisa Blaise, a North Port parent whose child went to the center. "How many children in the state have also been failed?"
It's not just the Venice case where this has happened. Last December, a state court overturned the child abuse conviction of a Charlotte County man. The court said even though religious school headmaster Paul Eric King had caused "significant bruising and welts" by paddling an 8-year-old girl, the injuries were not excessive and therefore not criminal.
In Manatee County, prosecutors did not file charges against School Board member Frank Brunner, although he slapped his son in the face, resulting in a cut lip.
"When the law is that fuzzy as to whether or not you can prosecute, obviously it calls for some clarification," said Detert, the House sponsor who made this legislation a top priority in her final session.
The bill has wide support from district attorneys, police agencies and child abuse organizations.
"If your significant other was attacked that way at work, it would be battery and that person would be arrested," said Hal Headley, executive director of Child Protection Center in Sarasota, who interviewed some children who went to the Venice school after the alleged abuse.
"To let people hide behind corporal punishment for the maltreatment of children is wrong."
Florida isn't the only state where legislators and courts are grappling with the definition of child abuse.
"In all 50 states, you have the right to hit your children as long as what you do is reasonable," said Victor Vieth, director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. "But what is reasonable in the eyes of the jurors in one county may be a lot different than those in another county."
Dr. Den Trumbull, an Alabama pediatrician and spokesman for the American College of Pediatricians, said some states have gone too far by "criminalizing spanking."
Parents have a right to use some corporal punishment on a young child, as long as it does not result in injury, Trumbull said.
"The state should not be between a parent and child in the disciplinary process," he said. "The motive of anti-spanking zealots is to criminalize any power assertion of a parent."
[Bill #s are HB1239 and SB2266].