DES MOINES, Iowa – Lawmakers under pressure from constituents in the months after the Casey Anthony trial have found it's not easy to toughen penalties for parents who don't immediately report missing children.
Seventeen states tried to pass "Caylee's Law" legislation -- named after Anthony's 2-year-old daughter whose 2008 disappearance in Florida was not reported for a month -- but many of these efforts have failed or stalled over concerns that proposed changes were too broad, and in some cases, not necessary. Iowa is the latest state to face difficulty trying to strengthen penalties involving how and when parents report missing children. Lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have required parents to know their children were safe in any 24-hour period.
A jury found Anthony not guilty in July in the death of her daughter, whose body was found in woods near her grandparents' Orlando home six months after she was reported missing. The trial, which was shown on live television, captivated the country, and her acquittal triggered outrage among hundreds of thousands of people who posted about the case on social media sites.
Lawmakers also heard from constituents who urged them to take action.
"They saw what they thought was an injustice. We need to have some response," said Iowa Rep. Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola.
But passing legislation attempting to strengthen missing children's laws has been difficult in many states. Only one, New Jersey, has put a new law on its books, said Rich Williams, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislature's Criminal Justice Program.
The Iowa legislative panel rejected the proposed law Wednesday after some questioned whether it was too vague. Marty Ryan, a lobbyist for the Iowa chapter of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Justice Reform Coalition, speculated that it would require parents to check in daily with children sent to summer camp.
Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, who co-sponsored the Iowa bill, acknowledged the measure needed work. "We clearly are moving too fast on this," said Kaufmann, R-Wilton.
By not approving the bill, the panel made it likely the proposal wouldn't meet a legislative deadline and would be dropped for this session.
Unlike the Iowa proposal, Williams said, most of the measures proposed in other statehouses require a parent to know a child is missing, avoiding the scenario of having to check on a child at camp. But he said many states have become stuck on determining the age in which the proposals should apply.
In some cases, lawmakers have questioned whether stronger missing children laws are necessary.
Nebraska state Sen. Tony Fulton said he was inspired by the Anthony case to introduce the bill that would increase penalties for concealing a death. But at a hearing in January, Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha called the proposal a "feel-good law" that would make little difference in most homicide cases, including those involving a parent accused of killing a child.
"If you have enough to prove they dumped the body, you probably have enough to prove that, at a minimum, they're an accessory after the fact and probably responsible for this crime," Harr said.
A committee held a hearing Wednesday on the other Nebraska bill, which requires a parent or guardian to report a child missing within 72 hours, but lawmakers took no action.
In South Dakota, a bill was approved overwhelmingly by the state Senate that gives parents 48 hours to report a missing child. State Attorney General Marty Jackley said the measure is needed because the state dealt with its own case last year in which a mother in Winner gave birth and left the baby to die in a bathroom. The woman was prosecuted for manslaughter and desertion of a child, Jackley said.
The South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers opposed the bill, saying it was too broad. The measure is set for a hearing this week in the House.
The Florida Legislature also is still considering a bill, but it has been changed to make it more narrowly focused on people who "knowingly and willingly" mislead police, resulting in the death of a child.
Some lawmakers say passing missing child reporting legislation is not the solution because in a case such as Caylee Anthony's a measure forcing requirements on parents wouldn't have saved the girl. Iowa Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, said the lesson with the Anthony murder trial was not that penalties should be enhanced for failing to report a missing child, but that prosecutors need to do a better job of building their cases.
"They didn't have the evidence in that case," Wolfe said.