Tulare mom champions new law protecting disabled children

Wendy Baker works to close loophole forcing children with disabilities to testify in sexual abuse cases because they’re physically older than their mental state

TULARE – A Tulare mom is taking her fight to protect her daughter, and other children diagnosed with a mental disability, from sexual abuse to the state legislature. 

Wendy Baker’s fight began just over a year ago when she noticed a change in her daughter, who was diagnosed at a young age with a severe language disorder and a learning disability. After several weeks of asking her daughter what was wrong, she finally admitted her uncle, Wendy’s ex-husband’s brother, had allegedly touched her inappropriately. Baker said she reached out to the family to see if there was some sort of misunderstanding, but signs continued to point to her daughter being sexually abused and so she contacted local law enforcement. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department dispatched the Child Abuse Response Team (CART) to conduct an interview with Kelsey. The interview and the case were sent to the District Attorney’s Office which said there wouldn’t be enough evidence unless Kelsey was willing to testify under oath. Baker asked if the CART interview with the certified child specialist could be used in place of her daughter testifying in court and she was told it was only admissible in court if the child was 12 years old or younger. Baker explained her daughter is physically 25 years old but mentally around 8 years old, so Baker went through the steps to gain conservatorship over her when she was still a minor. The courts wouldn’t budge setting Baker on her path to ensure this doesn’t happen to someone else’s child or family member.

“They all deserve justice and this loophole needs to be fixed so these criminals can no longer continue to prey on these vulnerable people and get away with it,” Baker said. 

The loophole Baker is referring to is the hearsay exemption for those 12 years old and younger under the California evidence code section 1360. During a criminal case, any statement not made by a witness testifying in court is considered hearsay, or second-hand information, and is not admissible in court. However, the hearsay rule does not apply to statements made by minors 12 years of age or younger considered victims of an alleged act or attempted act of child abuse committed against them. AB 2017 simply amends existing law to add to the definition of children 12 and younger to include victims with “a mental age under 12 years of age as a result of an intellectual or developmental disability.”

After struggling to find justice without forcing her daughter onto the witness stand, Baker decided if she couldn’t change the court’s stance on the law, she would change the law. She reached out to Assemblyman Devon Mathis, whose 26th district represents most of Tulare County, in December to introduce legislation to update the law. Baker said she knew Mathis would champion her cause and amend the legislation because he has children with special needs as well. 

The veteran Assemblyman said the amendment is a small change in the text of existing law that could have huge benefits for the most vulnerable members of our society for many years to come. He said he hopes to bring the bill to the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee soon.

“In granting the courts the appropriate discretion, AB 2017 is a crucial step in addressing a systemic issue and strengthening California’s court proceedings to reflect the challenges facing those with disabilities,” Mathis said. “The measure ensures that both the perpetrators of abuse are brought to justice, and that those victims with disabilities are not excluded or overlooked.”

The bill has been supported by Crime Victims United, a nonprofit advocating for stronger sentencing for criminals and more support for victims, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies advocating for needed changes in public safety. Baker said she has also talked with Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, who is asking the District Attorney Association of California to support the bill. 

On March 15, Baker spoke during public comment at the Tulare City Council meeting and asked the city, the police department and council members to consider signing a letter of support for the bill.  Addressed to the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, the letter says the criminal justice and court process can be overwhelming for many but for those with disabilities the experience can be so intimidating it could severely hinder their ability to provide accurate testimony. To date, Baker said more than 450 people have signed the letter or sent their own letters of support for AB 2017 and plans to get thousands more.

“Trials are a search for the truth, not a contest of wits and concentration,” the letter of support states. “The exemption granted in AB 2017 is a bipartisan solution to grant courts the necessary flexibility and discretion to protect those with an intellectual or developmental disability, and close an existing loophole that may allow child sexual predators and abusers to avoid prosecution and justice.”

Baker said she has personally called and emailed the offices of every member of the Public Safety Committee in the hopes that her personal journey for justice might persuade them to act quickly. Baker said her daughter’s case is not due back in court until April and she is hoping to get the law changed before that time. 

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