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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Even by Heather Scott’s low standards, bill to foster silence around child abuse was extreme, irresponsible

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, asks a question a joint session of the Senate Judiciary and Rules and the House Judiciary, Rules, and Administration committees during a special session of the Idaho legislature at the state Capitol building on May 18, 2015, in Boise. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, asks a question a joint session of the Senate Judiciary and Rules and the House Judiciary, Rules, and Administration committees during a special session of the Idaho legislature at the state Capitol building on May 18, 2015, in Boise. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

In October 2017, a 6-year-old named Wyatt showed up at the hospital in Coeur d’Alene covered in a “a constellation of injuries that are consistent with severe abuse and neglect,” according to the nurse practitioner who examined him.

The boy, who lived in Post Falls with his father and his father’s half-sister, was quickly flown to Spokane for emergency surgery. Among his injuries was a split pancreas, a potentially fatal condition caused by the half-sister stepping on the boy’s stomach because he had snuck some food, the nurse practitioner’s report said.

Injuries and scars covered a “majority” of the boy’s body, in various stages of healing that suggested a long pattern of torture. His hips and rear end were covered in abrasions. He had several circular wounds that seemed to be the result of gouging. His genitals were scabbed and he had a cauliflower ear. He appeared to be starving, and it appeared he had eaten part of a pillow in his desperate hunger.

The boy was tortured, and his father, Melvin Bledsoe, and his father’s half-sister, Joy Tamika Anderson, are now where they belong, serving 15-year sentences in prison.

But one of the troubling issues that lingers in the case of “little Wyatt” – as a Post Falls police officer referred to him in his reports – has to do with how long this couple tortured him, and how many people saw it happening and stayed quiet.

Neighbors saw the two adults beat the boy regularly. One said she saw Anderson drug the boy. Others saw him tied to his bed.

And yet there is no record that anyone reported this to the authorities before Wyatt showed up in the emergency room.

The case of little Wyatt comes to mind in the wake of a simply astonishing piece of legislation introduced in the Idaho Capitol by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard. Even for Scott – who rides in Matt Shea’s sidecar, parades with the Confederate flag, defends white nationalists, smears her colleagues with sexual innuendo and has been deemed “a solid defender of freedom” by the fringy Idaho Freedom Foundation – the legislation was remarkably irresponsible.

Scott’s bill would have eliminated the legal requirement that nonprofessionals who witness child abuse or neglect must report it to the authorities. Those who don’t are subject to misdemeanor penalties.

Based on reporting in the Idaho Press and other venues, it was clear that, for those who spoke up in support of this bill, it was all about … liberty.

“I think that all of us in this room and in our state, in our country, want what’s best for our children,” Rep. Christy Zito said in House testimony – exemplifying that all of them in that room don’t actually want what’s best for children at all.

“We should defend and protect them to the bitter end. I also don’t believe that we need the state to tell us to do that, and to punish us if we don’t.”

This is truly an unsettling frontier in paranoid anti-government excess – a defense of the freedom to ignore child abuse. In a state whose Legislature has repeatedly refused to take the side of children over faith-healing parents who let them die, perhaps this should not be surprising.

Happily, the Idaho House gave Scott’s bill the drubbing it deserves, defeating it 42-25.

Yes, that’s 25 “yea” votes.

Rep. Judy Boyle, a Midvale Republican, spoke up for basic human decency: “If we do not speak up for our kids, we are just as guilty as the person we see doing horrible things to them. Absolutely we should report this, and there are a lot of people who are afraid to, and if there is a penalty for not doing it, then maybe they will actually do it. Those kids have no chance unless they’ve got an adult who will help them. I hope you will vote against this.”

Scott did not respond to an email message seeking comment. It is one of three bills she introduced in this session targeted at reducing state authority in child abuse and neglect cases. Scott has clearly surveyed the issue of child abuse in Idaho and determined that the state is going too far in trying to stop it.

If there is anything that shows up consistently in the worst child abuse cases, it is that the abuse or neglect was often visible to people outside the household. There was often something that others in the community – neighbors, friends, random folks at the grocery store – had a legitimate reason to at least wonder about.

The legal requirement to report those concerns when they’re concrete, in cases where someone has witnessed the abuse or consequences of it, is nothing more than a legal expression of simple human decency.

The resistance to this requirement – and especially if you’re waving a “Don’t Tread on Me” banner while resisting it – is the simple and direct opposite: ignorant indecency.

I couldn’t find any instances where the law had actually been applied in Idaho, though there may be such. But if a misdemeanor penalty strikes you as overzealous, let me invite you to consider some of the warning signs that went unsounded in the case of little Wyatt.

First off, the boy’s father, Bledsoe, was convicted of abusing him when he was 9 months old. Wyatt had showed up in the ER with a handprint on his face, among other injuries.

“I was amazed at the clarity of the finger outlines on his tiny cheek,” the investigating officer wrote.

Bledsoe regained custody. Over the subsequent years, at least three people had a very clear, unambiguous view of what was going on with him. When the boy was 4, he and Anderson stayed with a friend who later told police that Anderson drugged Wyatt and beat him regularly. There is no indication this was reported to anyone at the time.

Later, two people who lived next to Bledsoe and Anderson in a Rathdrum trailer park said they’d seen the two adults slap and spank the boy routinely, hit him in the head and throw him into a wall. Wyatt was sometimes tied to his bed. He was starved.

Overall, the neighbors said, Bledsoe and Anderson treated the boy like “crap.” If they notified anyone at the time, there is no indication of that.

One imagines that these are not the only people who ever witnessed signs of this torture. Every single person who did and said nothing failed that kid miserably.

What’s unimaginable is why anyone, even a legislative loon, would try to foster silence around child abuse.

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