COLUMBIA — Child-care providers who seriously injure children would face minimum two-year prison sentences under a state bill introduced Thursday.
That bill was drafted in response to the 2008 Richland County case of Kendra Gaddie, a then-7-month-old girl who authorities say was slapped so hard by her home day care provider that it caused bleeding in her brain.
Talisha Lavette Smith, a Summit neighborhood day care provider, was facing a maximum 20-year sentence after pleading guilty last month to harming Kendra, but was placed on five years' probation.
The current law carries no minimum sentences.
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"Children need advocates," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said Thursday. "There is a great amount of support from moms (for this bill). We've touched a nerve; now parents can have some comfort."
If passed, the law would be known as "Kendra's Act," he said.
Kendra's mother, Michelle Gaddie, said Thursday she supports the bill "emphatically."
"Me personally, I would have liked to have seen five years (minimum sentence) for a day care operator," Gaddie told The State. "But it's definitely a good beginning."
Critics say mandatory minimum sentences crowd prisons and strip judges of their discretion in deciding sentences.
"They have no trust in judges in this state," said longtime civil rights lawyer Rauch Wise of Greenwood. "The problem with mandatory minimums is that everybody is treated the same, and that is not a good thing."
Wise predicted that if Fair's bill becomes law, defendants likely either will go to trial causing more backlogs or plead to lesser charges.
Fair described his legislation as a "consensus bill," noting the state Department of Social Services, which regulates child care providers, "helped get out this bill."
There are about 1,500 registered home day care operators in South Carolina, said Virginia Williamson, chief lawyer for the social services department.
Fair, who heads a Senate committee overseeing the state prison system, said he doesn't believe his bill would result in crowding, noting, "We hope and think (the crime of inflicting great bodily injury on a child) is not widespread."
Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims' Council, said Thursday though she is "very pleased" with the bill, she predicted judges opposed to mandatory sentences will try to convince House members to stop it.
Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who owns three licensed child care facilities, said Thursday she plans to issue a companion bill in the House next week.
She said she supports part of Fair's bill that requires a minimum of two hours of training yearly for home day care operators. Currently, there is no training requirement for that group, she said.
"We have to put a (training) requirement on the front end and not just a punishment on the back end," Erickson said. "My goal is to have less child abuse."
Fair said the required training would cover the law on inflicting great bodily injury on a child and ways to prevent child abuse. The training would be paid for with an increase in the registration fee for home day care operators, he said, which he said would be nominal.
Home day care operators are charged $15 every two years to register, Williamson said.
Gaddie said she hopes the bill will quickly pass both houses; if enacted as written, it would take effect upon the governor's signature.
Gaddie said her daughter, who was injured March 19 in Smith's day care, is "doing OK" these days, noting she continues to undergo speech therapy to help her begin talking, along with sign language training.
In the meantime, Gaddie said she is waiting to hear whether Circuit Judge Kenneth Goode will reconsider his Dec. 8 sentence for Smith.
Two days after the sentencing, the 5th Circuit Solicitor's Office formally asked Goode to reconsider his ruling. Goode has not responded to the motion, office spokeswoman Babs Lindsay said Thursday.
There is no law requiring Goode to respond, and prosecutors can't appeal to any higher court until he does, Lindsay said.
Gaddie said the law should be changed to require judges to respond quickly to those motions.
"We could be in limbo forever," she said. "I'm sure it would take five minutes to respond. The justice system is supposed to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, and it's not happening in this case."
Goode has not returned repeated calls over the past two months to The State. The Winnsboro-based judge, who has been on the bench since 1999, is up for re-election in the Legislature on Feb. 11.