The bill was introduced last week in anticipation of Domestic Violence Awareness Month
(SALEM) – As the nation readies to observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month this month, Assemblywoman Celeste Riley has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to commit a domestic violence act in the presence of a child who is 16 years old or younger.
“Many children who have witnessed domestic abuse at home develop emotional and behavioral problems that impact their development. They often carry that scar into adulthood and see violence as an appropriate reaction to conflict. It’s a sickening cycle with dangerous consequences,” said Riley (D- Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “This bill recognizes that in a household inflicted by domestic violence, children who witness the abuse are victims as well, and creates the appropriate punishment.”
Under current law, a person commits an act of domestic violence and may be subject to prosecution, if the person commits one or more of acts of homicide, assault, terroristic threats, kidnapping, criminal restraint, false imprisonment, sexual assault, criminal sexual contact, lewdness, criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass, harassment, or stalking upon a person protected under the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991.
Riley’s bill (A-3271) would provide that when the act of domestic violence takes place in the presence of a child who is 16 years old or younger, to whom the abuser or the victim is a parent, guardian, or resource family parent, the abuser would be subject to criminal prosecution for both the underlying offense and for the separate crime of committing an act of domestic violence in the presence of a child. However, the bill would not require that the person be convicted of the underlying offense in order to be convicted of committing an act of domestic violence in the presence of a child.
Under the bill, the abuser would need to know that the child was present during the commission of the domestic violence act. Per the bill, the term “in the presence of a child” means that the child was physically present or that the abuser was aware the child was present and may see or hear the abuse.
Committing an act of domestic violence in the presence of a child would be a crime of the fourth degree, if the underlying offense is a disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly persons offense. Otherwise, it would be graded one degree higher than the most serious underlying offense. If the offender is convicted of both the underlying offense and committing an act of domestic violence in the presence of a child, the convictions would not merge and a court would be required to impose a separate sentence for each conviction.
A fourth degree crime is punishable by imprisonment for up to 18 months, up to a $10,000 fine, or both; a third degree crime by imprisonment for three to five years, up to a $15,000 fine, or both; a second degree crime by imprisonment for five to 10 years, up to a $150,000 fine, or both; and a first degree crime by imprisonment for 10 to 20 years, up to a $200,000 fine, or both.
“Children who witness abuse are silent victims. The fear and helplessness these children must feel when seeing one parent abuse the other is heartbreaking, and has serious implications on their mental well-being,” said Riley. “Research shows that children who witness violence are at risk for confounding problems such as failing at school, committing violence against others and suffering low self-esteem. It is a parent’s responsibility to protect their children, but if they can’t, we as a state should remind them that this type of behavior is not acceptable and that there will be consequences for their actions.”
The bill has been referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee for further consideration.