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Monday, July 18, 2011

What About the Fathers? The Anthony Case and Danieal Kelly

I confess that I winced away from watching the Casey Anthony trial and only inadvertently picked up information from people who wanted to tell me about it. Now that the trial is over, though, I find myself thinking about an aspect that rated some sidebars: what about the father?

The Internet remains full of discussion of who the child’s father might have been, whether he’s alive, why he hasn’t come forward. A woman in New England has even declared that her son is the father, carrying family solidarity and maternal pride (?) to unheard-of levels. The comments on this issue are a melange of different types of disapproval, ranging from the idea that the father might have saved the little girl’s life if he had been paying attention, to the concern that anyone putting himself forward at this juncture is merely acting in hopes of cashing in on the selling of the Anthony story.

Not many people have mentioned the possibility that an identified biological father may have some legal responsibility in the child’s death and the mother’s subsequent ill-judged actions. I don’t know what the Florida law is, or what prosecutorial intentions might be, but a somewhat parallel case in Philadelphia shows that a father may be found guilty of various offenses in connection with the death of a child with whom he has no contact.

A lengthy legal process has tried several people for their culpability in the 2006 death of Danieal Kelly (see Danieal, who was physically very much impaired by cerebral palsy, died at age 14, weighing 42 pounds and covered with bedsores. She essentially starved to death. Her mother, Andrea Kelly, is already serving a prison term, but a few days ago, after trial, the social workers who had failed to respond to the child’s condition, and Daniel Kelly, Sr., Danieal’s father, were convicted of charges in this case. Daniel Kelly, who had at one time had custody of his children, returned them to their mother, who, he claimed, denied him access to Danieal. He did not report the matter to authorities or make any effort to be sure that Danieal’s special needs were met. He has been convicted of child endangerment and may be sentenced to as much as 7 years in prison.

Would Daniel Kelly have been convicted if he had never seen Danieal, or if he did not know he was her biological father? It’s possible-- even likely-- that he would not even have been tried under those circumstances. As it was, having spent some time living with Danieal, he was well aware of her physical incapacity and her special needs for physical care and for educational services. He must have had some idea of the degree of danger involved in leaving her to the sole care of her mother, although he also may have legitimately assumed that the social work service would oversee what was happening to Danieal. Nevertheless, some will object to his conviction for events that occurred when he wasn’t fully aware of the situation, and might well argue that if he had never known there was a baby, he would not have been at all responsible for Danieal’s death.

Daniel Kelly’s conviction is a message to some disengaged fathers of their minimal responsibility toward their children; even if they never provide a meal or pay child support, they must be sure that their children are receiving the basic care they need. But what is the message to those who never saw the baby, or even paid enough attention to know there was a pregnancy? What are the legal implications for those men of coming forward at a later time? Generally, unknown fathers are thought to lie low in order to avoid paying child support, but where a child has been harmed or killed, such men might also have possible concerns about charges of child endangerment.

This situation is fraught with ethical and practical dilemmas. On the one hand, it seems completely unfair to bring serious charges against someone who didn’t know what was going on-- but is Daniel Kelly’s “failure to know” any more or less culpable than the failure of a man to know that he impregnated a woman? And what would happen if unknown (but later identified) fathers of abused children were charged with endangerment? Would this encourage such men to take responsibility for their children’s well-being-- or would it encourage them to withhold their identities from partners and avoid serious relationships?

Perhaps the various candidates for Casey Anthony’s impregnator should think over their positions before they rush to declare themselves and sell their stories.

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