Are North Dakota Child Abuse Laws Tough Enough?


Here at KX News, we’re putting North Dakota first and looking deeper into the safety of children in our communities.

That’s why when we discovered a man accused of murdering his own baby had a history of child abuse, that included spending just 18 days in jail for breaking a little girls’ legs, we asked the tough question: How does this happen?

Renée Cooper spent the day digging into whether North Dakota’s child abuse laws are tough enough for our states.

North Dakota State law says injuring your child is a Class C Felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. If the child is under 6 years, like in Rivera-Rieffel’s case, it becomes a Class B with up to 10 years behind bars.

Burleigh County Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer adds, “As opposed to if you do it to somebody else, even somebody else’s child that you don’t take care of, that’s only a B Misdemeanor.”

Lawyer says the reason Rivera-Rieffel received a plea deal in this case is because evidence was scarce. She cites a nearly identical 2016 case.

She explains, “We had an individual who had been charged with child abuse for breaking his child’s leg. Both parents had access to the child, but again, it came down to the evidence which showed the father was the one that broke the leg, even though neither one of them had admitted to doing it. That went to a jury trial and the jury acquitted.”

According to data from Prevent Child Abuse ND, there has been an 8 percent increase in child abuse cases from 2016 to 2017.

Scott Betz is an investigator with the Bismarck Police Department. He has seen a lot of child abuse cases and he says it’s actually one of the most under-reported crimes. Although it’s happening all the time, he says some weeks they’ll get reports of four cases, other weeks they’ll get none.

Betz adds, “If it’s kids getting abused in a home, and the parents are doing it, I mean obviously the parents aren’t going to report it.”

It’s generally left to teachers or close relatives to make the report.

Mandan Police Department Lieutenant Pat Haug says, “Many kids can’t defend themselves or even necessarily report for themselves, you know, if they’re a small infant or child. So, it’s important for other people to speak for them.” 

Haug says to go ahead and report any suspicious activity. When it comes to child abuse, it’s better to report and find out it was a misunderstanding later.

Reporting child abuse can be tricky because it involves interfering in another family’s home life.  Because it is so important, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota has child abuse reporter training resources.

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