The Culpability of Passive Abuse

Last Friday, a Brooklyn mother was convicted of manslaughter in an infamous case that has, once again, led to soul-searching and overhaul of New York City’s child welfare system.  What is remarkable about this case is that the mother never struck a single blow; rather, her 7-year-old daughter was beaten to death by her stepfather.  Seven months ago, the stepfather was similarly convicted, and he is currently serving 26 1/3 to 29 years in prison.  Ironically, the mother could end up serving much more time than that, because she was also convicted of assault, unlawful imprisonment, and endangering the welfare of a child.

As any child advocate will tell you, the facts of cases such as this one are horrifyingly familiar: brutal beatings and sadistic tortures by one adult (in this case, the little girl was tied to chairs, held under cold water, and forced to use a litter box instead of a toilet), chilling acquiescence by another adult, and mistake after mistake by whatever public agency is supposed to prevent this kind of thing by early intervention into suspicious circumstances.  Nearly two decades ago another notorious New York case, which involved the beating death of another little girl, triggered a national discussion about accountability and responsibility on the part of the “passive” parent.  In that case, 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg was beaten unconscious by Joel Steinberg (who had illegally adopted her) while Steinberg’s partner, Hedda Nussbaum (pictured above), was in the next room.  Steinberg left the apartment for three hours, leaving the girl unconscious, and Hedda did not call for help until the next morning, when the child stopped breathing.  In the Steinberg case, though, Joel was convicted of the killing while all charges were ultimately dropped against Hedda.

Why the difference in outcomes? 

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court Amends Its Rules to Permit Citation of Unpublished Opinions, with Limitations

As you probably already know, yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard the petition of the Wisconsin Judicial Council to amend Wisconsin Statue section 809.23(3), to permit citation of unpublished Wisconsin Court of Appeals opinions as persuasive authority.

Beth Hanan, managing member of Gass Weber Mullins and Vice Chair of the Wisconsin Judicial Council, kindly offered the following summary of the hearing and the court’s decision to amend the rule.  (Please note that these are Beth’s own, individual comments and are not the comments or thoughts of the Judicial Council.)

Taking a cautious step into a national trend, yesterday the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 6:1 to permit citation of unpublished authored appellate decisions, with several limitations.  Amended Wis. Stat. (Rule) s. 809.23(3), like Fed. R. App. P. 32.1, will be prospective only.  This means that parties and courts will be able to cite those unpublished authored opinions which are released on or after the planned effective date of the amended rule, July 1, 2009.  When parties cite such opinions, they will have to file and serve copies of the opinions.  The rule specifically will  provide that parties are not required to cite unpublished opinions.  Finally, the supreme court has ordered that a committee be formed to plan the roll out of the rule and devise a means of tracking its effectiveness or particular difficulties it may create.  Those statistics will be used by the court to review the rule three years after its adoption.

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Suicide and Inheritance: A New Ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals

Last week, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Wisconsin ruled on a case involving a testator (Edward Schunk) who committed suicide and the inheritance rights of the family who survived him. Apparently, Edward was on a one-day pass from a hospital when he was found dead in a cabin which he owned. The death resulted from a single, self-inflicted shotgun blast to his chest. His will left property to his wife, to his daughter from his second marriage, and to some (but not all) of his six older children who were not Linda’s children. Five of those older children challenged the inheritance by the second wife (Linda) and child from that marriage (Megan) on the grounds that they had aided Edward in committing suicide, and thus should be barred from inheriting under a Wisconsin statute that forbids inheritance by persons who unlawfully and intentionally kill the decedent. Linda and Megan denied providing any help to the decedent’s suicidal act, and asserted that Edward had taken his gun and gone to the cabin without their knowledge.

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