Window closing on dog law changes

6-year-old girl remains in hospital after pit bull attack.

After Dayton’s Klonda Richey was mauled to death by two mixed mastiff dogs in February, outraged citizens and city leaders demanded legislators strengthen laws related to dangerous and vicious dogs.

But lawmakers aren’t expected to return to Columbus until November, which means there is a narrow window for any legislation to pass before the two-year legislative session ends on Dec. 31.

Although state Reps. Roland Winburn, D-Harrison Twp., and Terry Blair, R-Washington Twp., introduced legislation in May to increase penalties for dog owners whose animals kill, the clock is ticking on whether any change can happen before the end of the year.

Existing laws aren’t strong enough for the Rev. Gregory Tyus of Middletown, whose 6-year-old granddaughter, Zainabou Drame, was mauled by two pit bulls outside of her home earlier this month. Zainabou suffered critical injuries to her face and remains in a medically-induced coma at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, he said.

“I think laws ought to be owner-specific,” Tyus said. “If you’re going to have an animal, there have to be some responsibilities.

“If a dog does do a vicious act, people need to be held liable for that. It’s assault.”

Advocates hope stronger laws will help protect children, who are disproportionately victims of dog bites because of their inexperience with dogs and tiny stature.

Kids at risk

Zainabou was playing tag in her yard with some other children when the dogs came after her. She is stable but continues to be in critical condition, Tyus said.

“Every day she gets a little bit better,” said Tyus, who is on the Middletown school board and is a former Middletown city council member.

The family has received support from throughout the country for the 40-pound girl who suffered a severed tongue, a broken nose and very severe facial injuries. It’s not clear whether she’ll be able to speak again, her grandfather said.

Almost 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year and half of the bites involve children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Montgomery County, more than 18,500 dog bites have been reported to the public health district in Montgomery County since 1993, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of dog bite data. Most of those bites, the data show, involve children. More than half of the dog bites in the county during the last 21 years were suffered by children between the age of 1 and 13. Bite victims younger than one year of age cannot be counted in the public health database.

Almost 300 children were treated at Dayton Children’s Hospital in 2013 for dog bites, according to the hospital. Of those, 21 were injured seriously enough that they had to be admitted to the hospital from the emergency department, said Lisa Schwing, trauma program manager at the hospital.

“Almost all of them are wounds that normally would require suturing, so they’re all significant lacerations,” Schwing said. “Some of them are far worse than others.

“If a dog gets a hold of your neck or of your chest, they can do some serious damage — particularly to smaller kids,” Schwing said. “Some of the wounds are just massive. When kids get bit because of how tall they are…they usually get bit in the face and that’s sometimes a very complicated repair to do.”

The majority of bites are to 4- to 8-year-old children, according to Schwing.

“I think that’s because their little faces are right in the dog’s faces,” she said. Sometimes children don’t understand not to get around the dog’s food bowl or how the dog will react. Sometimes, attacks are unprovoked.

“They’re just moving fast, walking fast, being next door in a yard or something like that,” she said.

The newspaper’s analysis showed an increase in bites during the summertime, when children are out of school and playing outside.

“The summertime is definitely are more significant time for dog bites,” said Cinnamon Dixon, DO, MPH, pediatric emergency physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Children usually are bit by their own dogs or another known dog. They may be walking through a neighbor’s yard and the dog may feel threatened and attack.”

Health department officials echo the need for people to stay on the lookout for dogs.

The county has been averaging a little more than 750 registered bites a year since 2002, according to the newspaper analysis.

Bill Wharton, spokesman for Public Health – Dayton & Montgomery County, called the number conservative.

“If you stop and think about it, you probably know someone who has gotten nipped by a dog and never reported it,” he said.

Legal consequences

Winburn said he hears stories involving dangerous or vicious dogs three to four times a week — some nationally and some local. The law needs to be stronger to hold dog owners more accountable, he said.

“Hopefully, this legislation addresses penalty and enforcement issues,” he said.

Sen. Bill Beagle is working on complementary legislation in the Senate. Beagle has been meeting with interested parties and the Legislative Services Commission to draft his bill, he said last week.

The Tipp City Republican said he hopes to address questions about the legal consequences and penalties for convicted felons owning dangerous, unsterilized dogs. Unsterilized dogs can be more aggressive, according to groups such as the Best Friends Animal Society. Beagle also wants the legislation to clarify the authority of dog wardens, so there is a better definition of what their enforcement powers are.

He expects the Senate legislation to be introduced within the coming months.

Several steps have to happen before a new law can take effect, however, including committee and full chamber hearings in the House and Senate, concurring votes in both Houses and the governor’s signature. If the legislative session ends before the legislation is passed, it will have to be reintroduced in the new legislative session that begins in January, which would reset the clock.

Tom Hagel, professor of law at the University of Dayton School of Law, has said the law attempts to balance the interests of the dog owner’s right to possess the dogs against the public’s right to safety.

County administrators Joe Tuss and Amy Wiedeman also have said neighbor disputes drive many of the dog complaints, which complicates the process of determining whether the law was violated.

Animal control officers try to work with owners to help them resolve issues related to their dogs before issuing stiffer penalties, according to Tuss.

Living in fear

Carol Myers, the first-cousin of Klonda Richey, is eager to see the law change. Richey, 57, of 31 E. Bruce Ave., lived in fear of the dogs owned by her neighbors, Andrew Nason and Julie Custer, Myers said.

“I knew she was very fearful of the dogs and she had stated several times she was afraid they would kill her,” Myers said.

A Montgomery County grand jury has been impaneled to consider possible charges against Nason and Custer related to Richey’s death.

Myers, who lives in Georgetown, Ohio, about 100 miles south of Dayton, has written letters to Winburn, Beagle and several other legislators, urging them to strengthen the legislation.

She pointed to the Drame case as another call for action. The owner of the dogs involved in that attack, Zontae Irby, was arrested on drug and weapons charges but has not been charged related to the mauling, said Charlie Rubenstein, prosecutor for the city of Cincinnati.

Rubenstein said he is waiting to what happens with Zainabou’s condition before he files charges.

Tyus worries that Irby could face only minor charges.

“As the laws stand right now, he (the dog owner) might possibly get charged with failure to control and that’s it,” he said.

Rubenstein, too, expressed frustration over the current law.

“We’ve had any number of cases,” he said, pointing to a December 2013 case where a woman in her 70s landed in a trauma unit after getting attacked. “When things this bad happen, people are surprised at the lack of force that the law has behind it,” he said.

Myers wishes the legislative process would move faster.

“I want it done right. I want what’s in there to be enough important stuff that it’s going to stick,” she said. “But still, my goodness, this happened in February and it’s June. I realize the wheels of justice turn slowly but it’s almost stopped.

“You’ve got dogs mauling people,” she said. “Let’s get real about things that are life and death.”

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