20 Nov 2010

Missouri court rules Amish elders are "mandated reporters", must stand trial for failing to report child abuse

South County Mail - Rogersville, Missouri - January 20, 2010

Court rules Amish elders to stand trial

By Nicholas W. Inman

In a case that has brought national attention to Webster County, the attorney for religious leaders of the local Amish community defended his clients at a preliminary hearing last Wednesday, Jan. 13.

The Amish did not appear for the hearing, as their appearance was waived by the court.

Defense attorney Will Worsham requested that Associate Circuit Court Judge Ken Thompson dismiss the charges against Christian J.F. Schwartz, Jacob P. Schwartz, Emmanuel M.S. Eicher and Peter M. Eicher, church elders each charged with one count of failure to report child abuse by a mandated reporter, a Class A misdemeanor.

In oral arguments, Worsham described to the court that the cases against the leaders should be dismissed on the basis that the charges are unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Worsham presented arguments to the court about whether his clients should be considered ministers under the law. He also questioned whether state statues clearly define the role of ministers and said his clients were merely volunteers in the church, men who were not professionals receiving a salary for religious duties.

Worsham used the example of those who do not participate in the draft or the military as examples of others who, because of their religion, do not participate in usually mandated activities.

He said holding the four Amish elders accountable for their items under the mandatory reporting law was a violation of their First Amendment rights. He added his opinion that the state statute is clearly defined for those who have supervisory positions over children, such as day care centers and preschools.

Worsham noted that his clients were not affiliated with any formal organization and hold no license for the duties that they perform. He said, “This really entraps volunteers, people who never knew that they would be mandated reporters. If you question a Sunday school teacher out on the street, they would likely not know that they are mandated to report. This statue cannot be applied to these people, and it is not fair.”

Representing the state, Webster County Prosecuting Attorney Danette Padgett argued that the charges should not be dismissed because the elders were viewed by members of their community as religious leaders, or Fannie Schwartz would never have approached the men about the alleged abuse occurring in her home, seeking counsel and intervention.

Padgett emphasized that the state statute is clear about those who are mandated reporters, and that there is no case law ruling the statute unconstitutional.

She countered Worsham’s points by explaining that the intent of the General Assembly was not to discriminate against any religion, but instead was clearly to protect children who were being abused.

Padgett said that it is common knowledge that the mandated reporter law exists, and everyone is expected to know the law.She stated, “This religion should not be treated differently because they are Amish. This statute is not just for ministers or a particular class of people or occupation, it is for everyone who has contact with children. Its focus is on children, and is not meant to punish anyone in a particular profession.”

The prosecutor also said a religion should not be an excuse for not following the law.

Following oral arguments from both sides, Judge Thompson ruled that the request for dismissal of the case would be denied.

He stated, “It is public policy in Missouri that we will protect children from abuse.” He further ruled that he did not find the statute to be unconstitutional.

Following his ruling, the judge discussed possible trial dates with the prosecutor and defense. A bench trial for the four Amish elders is tentatively set for March 10 at 9 a.m.

Worsham requested that his clients again appear by absentia, per their request. He also requested that all four men be tried at the same time. Judge Thompson stated that he would further investigate the request for appearance by absentia and would later contact the attorneys involved.

Schwartzes also have hearings

Later last Wednesday afternoon, Johnny A. Schwartz and Fannie J. Schwartz waived their preliminary hearing and the next court appearance for both has been scheduled before Associate Circuit Court Judge Don Cheever on Jan. 26 at 1 p.m.

The court modified the condition of Fannie J. Schwartz’s bond to allow lifting the condition of supervised and restricted visitation with two of her adolescent daughters.

Fannie Schwartz, present in the courtroom, along with a large contingency of the Amish community, stated that she understood the new conditions, which were to allow no contact or discussion about the case or their father, Johnny Schwartz.

Padgett stated that the state was willing to concede those conditions and allow the children to return to a more normal way of life. However, she stressed that the children are not to be involved in any form of verbal or written communication about Johnny Schwartz’s case, and in the event that the qualification is violated, the terms would need to be re-imposed by the court.

The court also ruled that Johnny Schwartz could have visits from his children who are 17 years of age and older while incarcerated in the Webster County Jail.

Johnny Schwartz is charged with four counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, an unclassified felony, and two counts of first-degree child molestation, a Class B felony.

Fannie Schwartz is charged with two counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child because she did not report the alleged abuse to authorities. The of the charges is a Class C felony, because it involves sexual conduct, while the other is a Class D felony.

Charges were filed against the couple in October 2009 after an investigation allegedly showed Johnny Schwartz had sexual relations with two female relatives, under the age of 16 at the time.

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