Sunday, March 05, 2000

Ohioan's incest bill could have unintended result

Child advocates worry over possible funds loss

The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — A brief item in a magazine nagged at Rep. Bob Ney. The Ohioan couldn't stop thinking about what he'd read: Laws in some states allow lighter punishments for people convicted of raping their own children than for those convicted of sexually assaulting someone else's child.

        It was an unintended consequence of old laws addressing an old problem — how to discourage cousins from marrying cousins — conflicting with more modern efforts to put away sexual predators.

        “I think most state legislators don't know about this,” said Mr. Ney, a Republican from St. Clairsville, Ohio. “I'm sure when they learn about it they'll do the right thing.”

        He said his first impulse was to check whether Ohio law treated incest differently than other child rapes, because that's where he knows the people who could set the law books straight.

        Ohio's law did not need to be changed, so he decided to try to get other states to examine their laws and fix them if necessary.

        But some child advocates worry that Mr. Ney's plan would hurt abuse victims.

        Last summer, Mr. Ney introduced a bill that threatens to withhold a portion of federal child-abuse prevention grant money from any state that does not quickly review and if necessary overhaul its old incest laws to put that crime on the same level as other child sexual assaults.

        “We say to these states to ante up, and if you rape a child, you rape a child,” Mr. Ney said. “Why should you have less of a penalty because you're a relative or someone who lives in the home?”

        The extent of the problem Mr. Ney is determined to fix is not easy to measure.

        He said he knows from anecdotal evidence and the research of child advocate and author Andrew Vachss, whose article in Parade Magazine inspired the bill, that more than 20 states have laws classifying incest as a “Class C” or lower crime.

        But there also is anecdotal evidence that prosecutors sometimes make incest an add-on offense for extra prison time in addition to the sentence imposed under the general child sexual abuse statute.

        No statistics could be found showing how often prosecutors allow abusers to plea-bargain down to a lesser incest charge or how often prosecutors use a lesser incest charge as a way to get additional prison time for an offender.

        Part of Mr. Ney's bill would require the Justice Department to start collecting detailed information about child rapes, the sentences imposed on those convicted of assaulting children and the relationship of perpetrator to victim.

        Even those involved in helping incest victims are not able to say how many children are harmed each year.

        The organization Prevent Child Abuse America said a survey of child protection services across the country found about 100,000 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in 1998, the most recent year available.

        In a 1996 report on child sexual abuse, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that birth parents were the perpetrators in 29 percent of the cases; and parental substitutes, such as guardians or a parent's boyfriend, were perpetrators about 25 percent of the time.

        That could mean about 50,000 incest cases, though the figures were not recent enough for victims' advocates contacted to feel confident about extrapolating an annual figure.

        Daniel Stasi of the Chicago-based group VOICES in Action: Victims Of Incest Can Emerge Survivors cautioned that many incest cases go unreported, making any attempt at statistics-gathering difficult.

        “Not many survivors do criminal prosecutions,” he said. “We get kids that are afraid to report because they don't want to tear the family apart, or they're being told, "Dad will go to jail and we won't have any money.'”

        Whatever the extent of the problem, A. Sidney Johnson III, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, said he is worried about the threat to child-abuse prevention funds.

        “I think this legislation represents some very good intentions and some unintended consequences,” Mr. Johnson said. “It threatens to reduce already meager funds for prevention of child abuse and neglect.”

        “We should be seeking to find better ways to enforce legislation of this kind that would penalize the perpetrators, not the children,” he said.

        That discussion would have been moot until just a few weeks ago, because Mr. Ney was not able to show enough support even to ask for a hearing on the matter.

        Now he says he's getting almost daily inquiries from his colleagues, prodded by listeners of radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger.

        Dr. Schlessinger made Mr. Ney's bill the subject of a monologue on The Dr. Laura Program, wrote about it in one of her syndicated columns and put a link to information about it on her Web site.

        The crusading Dr. Schlessinger promised to make this a recurring issue. “I'm going to stay on top of this one and let my listeners and my readers know who is supporting this legislation in the House and who isn't,” she said.

        In a matter of weeks, HR 2382 went from just eight co-sponsors to 25.


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