In June 2004, Campbell County authorities found a badly injured 3-year-old at her father’s mobile home. Haley Spicer had been burned with cigarettes, scalded with hot water and beaten, requiring surgery to open her eyes and operations to rebuild her face.
Her father was convicted of three counts of aggravated child abuse and one count of neglect. His live-in girlfriend pleaded no contest to the same charges, and a babysitter pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse.
A year later, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen signed “Haley’s Law,” which added a new offense of aggravated child neglect and endangerment and changed most child abuse charges to felonies. Defendants convicted of “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” actions, including “the affliction of torture” to victims under 8 years old, could be sentenced to up to 80 years under Haley’s Law.
Hundreds of defendants have been charged under the law, the latest the parents of 8-month-old Malcom Xavier Smith of Hawkins County. He died in July of last year at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. The mother, Jennifer Elise Smith, 33, and the father, Andrew Scott Smith, 50, also of Rogersville, were arrested earlier this month on charges of aggravated child abuse, sparking a barrage of social media questions and comments questioning why prosecutors didn’t pursue a murder charge.
That’s where Haley’s Law comes in. Attorney General Dan Armstrong explained that where it might be difficult to prove specifically who administered the fatal injuries — particularly in cases where abuse may have taken place over an extended period of time — Haley’s Law allows prosecution not only for abuse of a child but neglect and endangerment. The law “made it where we didn’t have to actually prove that a certain person physically abused a child. We could charge the same class felony by proving they had a supervisory role and failed to adequately protect the child, which was their duty.”
“So that brings in neglect and endangerment,” Armstrong said. “Haley’s Law basically put neglect and endangerment into the same proposition as child abuse so it would result in that Class A felony” where aggravated child abuse can result in a sentence of up to 60 years.
Justice is better served under Haley’s Law, but there are concerns that because of the pandemic, children in Tennessee are suffering in silence. The number of child abuse reports is down statewide.
In 2019, more than 79,000 reports of child abuse and neglect were filed in Tennessee, and the experts say the actual number is probably two to three times higher. But this year, children are at higher risk because they are staying at home more because of the pandemic. Most are back in school, but they are not engaged in other activities that take them out of the home.
You can help if you suspect child abuse. In fact, you are obligated to do so under the law, which requires every state resident to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect: “Any person who has knowledge of or is called upon to render aid to any child who is suffering from or has sustained any wound, injury, disability, or physical or mental condition shall report such harm immediately if the harm is of such a nature as to reasonably indicate that it has been caused by brutality, abuse, or neglect or that, on basis of available information, reasonably appears to have been caused by brutality, abuse, or neglect.”
Failure to report abuse is a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of up to three months imprisonment, a fine or both. Those who report and “act in good faith” are immune from any civil or criminal charges, which may result. The reporter has the right to remain confidential and anonymous.
If you suspect child abuse, call the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline at 877-237-0004. It accepts all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect for the state and is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.