Lawmakers broaden push against sex crimes

April 21, 2014 

— As the high-profile congressional fight over military sexual assault recedes, lawmakers are broadening their focus to an array of sex crimes like college campus assaults, child predators and human trafficking.

Unlike the military assault measures, these efforts _ almost all bipartisan _ have gone largely uncelebrated. But as a group they represent a far-reaching effort to combat sexual abuse.

“What’s unusual right now is that there are so many issues getting attention at the same time,” said Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. “There is a growing sense that these are winnable fights. We are excited and trying to make the most of it.”

The legislative attention comes as the White House is preparing to release, as early as this week, its recommendations on how to stem sexual assaults on college campuses. The actions are in concert with efforts by state legislatures over a range of law enforcement issues related to sex crimes, like a nationwide backlog of untested rape evidence kits. About half of the states are considering some form of legislation, Berkowitz said.

Further, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a key player in the military sexual assault legislation, has asked the White House to direct the Department of Education to streamline the way it handles sexual assault complaints and to require all colleges to conduct standardized, anonymous surveys on campus assaults.

“It is simply unacceptable that going to college should increase your chance of being sexually assaulted,” Gillibrand said in an email.

The increased interest stems in part, experts and lawmakers said, from a confluence of conspicuous assault cases, such as the conviction of a Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, over his sexual abuse of young boys and accusations that a Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, raped a freshman at Florida State University, along with a growing body of evidence underscoring the prevalence of sexual violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 women say they have been raped.

Among the bills being considered by Congress is a measure offered by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., that would tighten background checks on people who work in schools and ban the practice of helping to push child molesters out of one school district and into another. A similar bill has passed the House.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, is pushing a bill that targets sex trafficking in the foster care system.

“I am not sure Congress really knew how bad this problem is,” said Hatch, who added that he was inspired to draft legislation after hearing the testimony of a victim at a recent Senate hearing in which it was revealed that 60 percent of child sex-trafficking victims came from the foster care system.

“To me, it was heart wrenching,” Hatch said.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both Democrats, spent last week in Mexico as part of their efforts to address human trafficking across borders.

Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have turned their attention to sexual assault on campuses. McCaskill, a former prosecutor, plans to conduct a survey of 50 colleges and universities to monitor their handling of sexual assault cases. The two are among nearly a dozen senators seeking new federal funding to battle campus sexual assaults.

Both senators were leaders on legislation that would make the military more accountable in cases of sexual assault. McCaskill was successful with some modest measures this year, while Gillibrand’s efforts to remove authority over such cases from military commanders failed.

While sporadic legislation in response to high-profile assaults has been commonplace on the federal and state levels, the new legislation tends to have broader and more systemic goals.

“There has been a lot of attention in the last couple of years on child abuse and exploitation,” said Mary G. Leary, a law professor at the Catholic University of America and an expert on the exploitation of women and girls.

“But what is different about the most recent wave is this focus on the institutional role,” she said. “With the Sandusky matter, part of what horrified Americans was the institutional response, and that was true again with the military institutional response.”

In many cases, lawmakers were inspired by particularly high-profile crimes in their states. For instance, Toomey and Manchin came together over the case of a teacher in Pennsylvania who molested several boys; the school then helped that teacher get a new job in West Virginia - a practice known as “passing the trash.” The teacher was later convicted of raping and killing a 12-year-old boy there.

The senators’ bill would require that states perform thorough criminal background checks on potential employees who work with children, and ban the practice of recommending a known child molester to a new school. Last year, the House unanimously passed a similar measure.

“I think it’s a moral imperative that we do this,” Toomey said on the Senate floor two weeks ago.

Hatch and Klobuchar are focused on the exploitation of young girls, often impoverished, who are lured into prostitution and later arrested, essentially dumping them into a criminal justice system from which they have little way to escape, even when they are too young to give sexual consent.

Among his provisions, Hatch seeks to eliminate federal matching money in many cases for some group homes, in an effort to reduce the number of those homes, where Hatch said predators often sought their young prey. The provision is almost certain to be controversial.

Klobuchar, who traveled to Mexico with Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has a longstanding interest in the sex trafficking problem, is modeling her legislation on Minnesota’s “safe harbor” laws, which require states to treat child prostitutes as victims rather than as criminal defendants, and would help victims of sex trafficking participate in the Job Corps program.

“One of the things that is nice is when it comes to protecting children from sexual abuse, it is easier to find bipartisan agreements,” said Cathleen Palm, the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice. “We have made great strides in the sense that our politicians are more willing to have their eyes open to child sexual abuse.”

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