A federal child abuse bill that’s been in the works for more than a year will soon become law.
The United States Senate unanimously approved the Kilah Davenport Child Protection Act without amendment during a session on Wednesday, May 7. Nicknamed by lawmakers as the “shame bill,” the law will require all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to report their sentencing guidelines for felony child abusers to the U.S. attorney general within 180 days.
“The goal is to highlight deficient laws and provide states with the opportunity to fix those laws before another tragedy occurs,” read a news release from the office of U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, the bill’s sponsor.
Justice For All Coalition founder Jeff Gerber, who’s been a vocal supporter of the bill, said President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law “any day now.”
“I don’t know of any other bipartisan bill passed by a unanimous vote in both the (U.S.) House (of Representatives) and Senate,” Gerber said. “I’m just thrilled and ecstatic that we received unanimous support at the federal level.”
The act is named for Kilah Davenport, a 3-year-old girl who was allegedly beaten by her stepfather in Indian Trail in May 2012. Kilah was not expected to survive more than 48 hours after her injuries occurred, but began a slow recovery following the incident.
Kilah’s health began declining earlier this year, however, and she was pronounced dead at a Cabarrus County hospital on March 13 after she stopped breathing and first responders were unable to revive her. Her death occurred just days before her fifth birthday.
Joshua Houser, Kilah’s stepfather, was tried and convicted of felony child abuse in February. Houser was sentenced to 92 to 123 months in prison – the maximum penalty for felony child abusers at the time of Kilah’s injuries.
Kilah’s family members became vocal supporters of increasing the penalty for felony child abusers following the incident and, along with Gerber and legislators throughout North Carolina, successfully lobbied for the passing of Kilah’s Law. The state law, which received unanimous support in both the N.C. House of Representatives and Senate, became effective April 2013 and requires future convicted felony child abusers to serve a prison sentence of 25 years to life.
The Davenports discovered following Kilah’s injuries that the problem with “lenient” child abuse laws wasn’t limited to North Carolina. So, they enlisted the help of Pittenger, who represents south Mecklenburg in North Carolina’s ninth Congressional district, to lobby for a federal act designed to increase the sentencing guidelines for felony child abuse nationwide. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy, of Florida, and Eric Stalwell, of California, signed on as co-sponsors.
Leslie Davenport, Kilah’s grandmother, said while the family is still mourning their loss, they take comfort in knowing Kilah’s story has been the driving force behind legislation they believe will likely save children’s lives.
“I never wanted Kilah to be famous in this sort of way,” Davenport said. “I knew I had a feeling from the moment she was born that she was special and would be famous. This is not what I had in mind. (Though) I’ve lost Kilah here on this Earth, I hope (her story) will be able to protect and save a thousand other little Kilahs out there.”
The Davenports established the nonprofit Kilah Davenport Foundation to help families of child abuse victims through financial and emotional support. The organization also advocates for child abuse education, and Davenport said one goal is to develop three age-specific programs – one each for middle school, high school and college students – focused on child abuse prevention.
“We’ve got to do something,” she said. “It’s not going to stop with just changing laws; you’ve got to change people’s attitudes.”