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When child is missing, delay is criminal

There hasn't been a court case since the O.J. Simpson murder trial that has evoked as much emotion from Americans as the murder trial of Casey Anthony, who was accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

A Florida jury acquitted Anthony of the most serious charges, leaving her with guilty verdicts on four counts of lying to police. With three years in jail under her belt already and a record of good behavior while behind bars, her maximum four-year sentence was reduced to time served, and she left jail about 12:17 a.m. Sunday.

The question, however, isn't whether Anthony was innocent or guilty. For better or worse, the judicial system has examined her and made its determination.

The question is, what can be done to keep this sort of thing from happening in the future?

Two major problems that law enforcement faced in working this child disappearance, and later homicide, case were the delay in Anthony reporting her daughter missing and the six months it took authorities to recover the little girl's body.

Anthony waited 31 days -- a full month -- before telling police her daughter was missing.

While there are some exceptions, authorities will tell you that the chances of finding a missing child alive drop dramatically if the disappearance isn't reported within 48 hours.

Once the search started, the trail was cold. It took law enforcement another five months to locate Caylee's body. By then, the condition of the remains had deteriorated to the point that medical examiners could not determine the cause of death.

Time took a toll on evidence that would have been required for authorities to make a convincing case.

Right now, this case is on a lot of people's minds, including lawmakers'. Legislators in Georgia and other states are considering implementing a "Caylee's Law" that would create a felony charge if a child's disappearance is not reported to law enforcement within a certain period of time.

This is an area that should be considered with caution, but it is obvious a parent or guardian waiting a month before reporting his or her child missing is a dereliction of duty that should be punished. We can't fathom a caring adult who, once he or she knows a child is missing, wouldn't report it immediately to law enforcement.

If this legislation goes forward, lawmakers will have to determine what is a reasonable amount of time to report a disappearance. It would be a reasonable course to have the shortest period for the youngest children.

In all likelihood, the General Assembly won't discuss this issue when it meets next month to take up the business of redrawing political districts throughout the state. Like any other cause celebre, the furor over the Anthony verdict could be gone by the time the gavel drops in mid-January to open the next regular session of the Legislature.

But this is a concern that shouldn't be tied to headlines or fueled by talking heads. A Caylee's Law should be developed and considered for one purpose -- to protect the most innocent of our nation. There is a parental responsibility here, and failing to fulfill that responsibility in the case of a missing child is criminal, regardless of whether such a law is on the books.