Tulare woman’s law to protect disabled daughter dies in Assembly committee

Kelsey’s Law would have prevented intellectually disabled victims from having to testify in-person against their abusers

SACRAMENTO – Legislation named after a Tulare woman to protect developmentally delayed adults from having to testify against their abusers was killed in committee last month.

On April 26, the Assembly Public Safety Committee narrowly refused to pass Assembly Bill 2017 onto the Assembly floor. Known as Kelsey’s Law, the bill would have allowed victims of child abuse with an intellectual disability to present out-of-court statements instead of testifying in person. Normally second-hand information would be considered hearsay, which is not admissible in court, but there are exemptions for children 12 years old and younger considered victims of an alleged act of abuse. AB 2017 simply proposes to amend existing law to add to the definition of children 12 and younger to include victims with “a mental age under 12 years of age as a result of an intellectual or developmental disability.”

“I am outraged by the misguided decision of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman to oppose, and ultimately kill Kelsey’s Law,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Porterville), who represents most of Tulare County. “This common-sense, bipartisan bill would have given our children with intellectual disabilities a fair voice in the courtroom. Instead, the Chair has unilaterally ruled that these children should be subjected to repeated trauma and interrogation while on the witness stand. I am repulsed by this lack of humanity.”

Mathis, the Assembly Republican Whip, co-authored the bill with four Republicans and three Democrats, including State Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), and introduced the bill alongside Assemblyman Tim Grayson (D-Concord), a Democrat from the Bay Area.

“Instead of working with me or my office, the Chair and committee staff saw fit to ensure the demise of this bill,” said Mathis. “I have always made a point to work with the committee and hear the concerns of the opposition. However, that courtesy seems to fall by the wayside for the Chair and his staff. I implore the committee to reconsider this harsh dismissal of the pleas of the intellectual disabled community to bring the perpetrators of abuse to justice.” 

Individuals with disabilities are not only chronically underrepresented in the judicial process, but are far more likely to be victims of crime when compared to those that are non-disabled. Data released from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2021 found that the rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities was nearly four times the rate for persons without disabilities. Furthermore, only 19% of rapes or sexual assaults against persons with disabilities were reported to police, compared to 36% of those against persons without disabilities.

The law is named after Wendy Baker’s daughter, who she claims was sexually assaulted by a family member. The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department dispatched the Child Abuse Response Team (CART) to conduct an interview with Kelsey. The interview and the case were sent to the District Attorney’s Office which said there wouldn’t be enough evidence unless Kelsey was willing to testify under oath. Baker asked if the CART interview could be used in place of her daughter testifying in court and she was told it was only admissible in court if the child was 12 years old or younger. Baker explained her daughter is physically 25 years old but mentally around 8 years old, so Baker went through the steps to gain conservatorship over her when she was still a minor. The courts wouldn’t budge setting Baker on her path to ensure this doesn’t happen to someone else’s child or family member.

The committee first heard arguments for the bill on April 5 and failed on a 3-2 vote along party lines. The committee did allow it to be submitted for reconsideration but again failed to pass the bill on a 3-2 vote. Assemblymembers Isaac Bryan and Miguel Santiago, both Democrats, abstained from the vote both times, a political move allowing them to object to the chair’s motion without voting against the chair, who can have them stripped of their committee appointments and replaced with other party members.

 “I thank my colleagues who stood with me and Assemblymember Grayson in defending our IDD community,” said Mathis.  “Further, I thank the members who defied the Chair and abstained on my measure. I encourage all of my colleagues to work with me to bring about this critical resource for our children with IDD. Access to justice should never be dependent or contingent upon the ability to be understood by the criminal justice system.”

Baker said she is hopeful some of the language can be reworded in order for the bill to pass out of committee in the next legislative session this fall. She said there was some talk of adding language requiring a licensed psychologist to diagnose an adult with an intellectual disability instead of leaving it up to the judge to determine if they qualify for the hearsay exemption.

“I’m ready to do it all over again and, if it fails again, keep trying,” Baker said. “This part of the law does need to change.”

The bill has been supported by Crime Victims United, a nonprofit advocating for stronger sentencing for criminals and more support for victims, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies advocating for needed changes in public safety. Baker said she has also talked with Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, who is asking the District Attorney Association of California to support the bill.